Ironically, just steps away from Assisi’s Museo della Memoria, 1943-1944 recounting the story of the salvation of Jewish refugees in Assisi in World War II – you’ll pass the entrance to one of the convents where many of the Holocaust survivors were hidden.
And whenever I walk past the entrance to the Monastero di San Quirico, I look up at the fresco over the entrance and reflect on its link to the convent’s role as place of refuge for the Jewish refugees hidden in Assisi 1943- 1944.
Did any of the many refugees who might have looked up when they entered that door realize the symbolic connection to their plight?
In the 15th-century, the convent was built on the site of 1st-c. A.D. Roman thermal baths for those Franciscan tertiaries (lay Franciscans) devoted to Blessed Angela da Foligno who had died in 1309.
The mid-15th-century fresco over the entrance by Foligno artist Cristoforo di Giacomo depicts Saint Anne near her daughter, the Virgin Mary, nursing the Christ Child – an image called la Madonna del Latte (Madonna of Milk). Saint Anne wears red and the Virgin, her traditional blue: both colors of nobility.
San Francesco is on the women’s right (the primary position in medieval art) on the side wall of the niche and visible in the photo below. Opposite St. Francis is San Quirico (not visible here):
A Madonna del Latte image is not a frequent theme in medieval fresco art – especially over the entrance to a monastero (convent) – but the image might refer to the motherhouse of the tertiaries, Sant’Anna in Foligno, founded by the Blessed Angela da Foligno.
Morevoer, the Madonna del Latte image is often near fountains with water considered miraculous for the abundance of the maternal milk so necessary for infants – and here were the Roman baths, with spring water in abundance. Not only: the Monastero di San Quirico is connected to another child, San Quirico, martyred with his mother in the 4th-century A.D. and revered as patron saint of children.
Perhaps that edicola (shrine) was not intended simply for the inspiration of the many pilgrims converging on the town of San Francesco but also to indicate the will of these tertiaries to care for needy children.
And during World War II, thanks to the courageous decision of the Mother Superior, Madre Giuseppina Maria Biviglia, the cloistered Poor Clares, le Clarisse, cared for many needy children – and adults thanks to the decision of the Mother: the political refugees and Jewish refugees hidden here in the convent named after San Quirico, the protector of children.
In 2013, Madre Giuseppina Maria Biviglia (1897-1991) of the Monastero di San Quirico was recognized by Yad Vashem in Israele as one of Assisi’s Righteous Among Nations (seven from our Assisi). In this 1984 photo of Madre Giuseppina, you see her behind the grill…….and in this photo of the community – taken in 1953 – Madre Giuseppina is in the front, center:
Detail of the same photo, showing Madre Giuseppina Biviglia:
She wrote this account of events many years ago:
“By the end of September (1943), the Anglo-American air offensive intensified and in our country, political persecutions, personal acts of revenge and hateful orders against the Jews and the Italian soldiers sympathetic to the Armistice, turned our convents evermore frequently into places of shelter for political figures, Jewish refugees and those escaping the concentration camps. Our convent played its part.
Superfluous to say that we religious were simply not capable of understanding all that was happening in the midst of so much confusion. One simply obeyed the feelings which surfaced spontaneously every time we were presented with these unfortunate souls. Before the suffering of each, every attempt of judgement was silenced, even though we would have known how to put forth one judgement: compassion would triumph…and it did triumph. A triumph of love.”
Was Madre Giuseppina Biviglia ever fearful?
In her words, “Sometimes I was a bit resistant to accepting these persons, feeling the full responsibility of my position before our community and fearful of a possible consequence – but in those moments, I was always encouraged by our Venerated Superior (note: Bishop Nicolini), by other priests and by my own consorelle (“co-sisters,” literally) to act in favor of these poor souls.”
And there were many: in one of her notes, she writes about the convent as having turned into an “arca di Noe” (“Noah’s ark”).
Hundreds were hidden by the cloistered Poor Clares of San Quircio – and always successfully thanks also to the underground tunnels and grottoes where at times they were hidden. These underground spaces often conserved documents and precious objects of those hidden in the convent. From the subterranean tunnels, they could exit into the convent garden:
And here you can see the San Quirico gardens today (and photos thanks to www.insantaunita.org):
…and here’s the community nowadays:
I see some of these cloistered Poor Clares on Good Friday morning during the Processione del Cristo Morto (“Procession of the Dead Christ”) when they gather in their chapel to receive the Christ carried in procession throughout Assisi – in prayer as they await, near the pallet covered with embroidered cloth, prepared to receive Christ:
They file silently to kiss the feet of the statue of Cristo Morto and place flowers there…
….before Christ is carried out and on to the next destination:
And then the Clarisse return to their convent, where refugees had joined in their lives there so many years before.