The Martyrdom of St. Maria Goretti


It is once more high noon. The sun from its zenith beats down on the Ferriere farm. A burning wind, storm-laden, sweeps across the swamps, licks the walls of the house and enters the kitchen by the open door. The Gorettis and Serenellis as usual are seated about the table. They have just finished their lunch. It is so hot that they delay a bit before returning to work. If Giovanni would permit, they would gladly take their siesta.

But he insists on working immediately after lunch, and they await his orders. Maria is doing dishes, amidst a silence broken only by the clatter of the plates. Hay and straw are already in the barn, but the unthrashed beans are still spread out in the yard, drying in the sun. “Go harness the team!” Giovanni orders. “There is no time to lose! We will have rain this afternoon. The beans will have to be in beforehand.”

Slowly Alessandro and Angelo rise. Assunta clears the table and pushes the benches beneath it. The other children scamper out of doors. Giovanni alone does not move. “Put the beans in bags, and take them up to the loft!” he continues.

But Alessandro does not hear his father. He has another project in mind. For the past hour his eyes
have followed Maria. Before returning to work, he goes to his room, where he is heard fumbling in
his closet. “Maria, I have a torn shirt that needs mending,” he calls out. “I’ll need it to go to Mass tomorrow. You’ll have to repair it for me this afternoon. I’m leaving it here for you.” And this he says with studied nonchalance.

The dishwashing stopped, but there was no reply. Within the girl’s heart emotions struggled for
expression. She felt like crying: “No! I have no time . . .” and it would have relieved her. But in spite of an instinctive repugnance, she consented again to be of service. True charity won out in her heart.

While he was harnessing the oxen in the stable, Alessandro’s thoughts pursued their evil trend. His
plans took definite shape. He visualized the scene. Maria will be quietly seated, and there will be
nobody in the house but the baby, Theresa. He will hurry in, close the kitchen door, then lock the door.
It will be so easy. “Giddap!” he calls to the oxen. Then leaping on the cart, he drives out into the yard.

For want of a thrasher, the Gorettis had improvised a method of their own. The beanstalks were heaped in the yard, and the cart, loaded with youngsters, passed and repassed over the piles. Meanwhile, Assunta turned and shook the lot with her fork.

Poor mother, her heart was full as she paused from time to time to witness the joy of her little ones. “Look at Angelo,” she mused, “so like his father directing the cart. What a consolation he is to me—my eldest. If we can only carry on for a little while longer, perhaps things will be brighter.

Then, too, there’s my Maria, so good to everyone! She is so sweet and holy. Maybe she’s a little too reserved. For the past month—especially since her first communion—she seems to be timid and worried. She hardly speaks, and her eyes are always downcast. She blushes so easily—her prayers are prolonged. What can be taking place in her soul? Apparently she has some secret . . .but then, she is at that age when girls are easily disturbed.”

Thus, while the oxen turn on the thrashing floor and the children shout and laugh, Assunta pursues
the thread of her maternal love—her only joy on earth. Suddenly Alessandro stops the cart and jumps down. “Take my place for awhile,” he tells Assunta, “I forgot my handkerchief in my room. I’ll be right back.” His forehead is moist with sweat.

Obediently Assunta puts aside her fork and climbs up in his place. The cart is off again, and the joy of children and mother is doubled. Then as Alessandro disappears through the doorway, a flash of lightning is seen on the horizon and a clap of thunder follows. The storm is approaching. The noon-day devil prowls about the Ferriere farm.

Meanwhile, Maria is seated on the porch above the kitchen door. It is much too hot within the house. She has taken Alessandro’s shirt and found a whole sleeve torn. It will be a long job, but courageously she sets about it, and her needle flies to and from. Beside her on a blanket her baby sister, Theresa, is fast asleep. From the other side of the house the racket and noise of the thrashing assure her of contentment and hope. Alone, she dreams of the morrow.

“Tomorrow will be Sunday, Feast of the Precious Blood. I will start early with Theresa Cimarelli,”
she tells herself, “so we can get to Confession and Communion.” Her little soul expands already in anticipation. She has so much to tell, so much advice to seek, such great strength to receive.

Suddenly, Alessandro looks out of the kitchen door. She jumps with apprehension. He has seen
her on the porch. Up the stairway he comes and without a word passes into the bedroom. Why has
he come? She can hear him fumbling with tools in the end room. What is he up to? Perhaps he has forgotten to take a sickle with him. Then he reappears in the doorway.

“Maria, come here!” His voice is harsh, and she is thoroughly frightened. The sewing drops to her lap, and she neither answers nor moves. “Hear me! Come here immediately!” Alessandro is already very impatient. He grabs her by the arm, and though she clings to the banister and calls for help, it is of no avail. He drags her into the house and bolts the door. She is his prisoner, with little chance of escape. Maria pleads desperately, “Alessandro, let me go! Let me go!” Alessandro holds up a knife threateningly. It has been sharpened into a pointed dagger. With waves of fear, Maria understands his evil intentions. But in spite of the frightened sobs that climb in her throat, a supernatural energy animates her. She will resist sin to the end—even to death if need be.

Frantically Maria wrenches free and screams for help . . . but who can hear amid the noise of the
cart and children and beans. She leaps around the table for protection, but he knocks it aside and trips her. As she falls, he pins her, yet she continues to struggle wildly for release. He has not expected such resistance. Maria cries out: “No! I will not, Alessandro, no!” Her constancy seems only to enrage him. He draws the cruel knife menacingly over her.

Maria knows the danger. This brute is now capable of anything. He is getting beside himself with rage. She pleads desperately: “Alessandro, let me go! Let me go!” The knife now hangs over her breast. She must choose: death or life, heaven or hell, God or Satan, sin or martyrdom. In a burst of heroism, making desperate efforts to free herself, she chooses energetically, superhumanly.

“No! No! It is a sin! God does not want this! If you do this, you will go to hell! What are you doing,
Alessandro! You will go to hell!”

The tragedy followed. Alessandro said later that something seemed to snap within him. With mad
rage, he plunged the steel into her chest and abdomen, then into her back—making fourteen
wounds in all. “It was just like I was pounding corn, like sticking a knife into a log,” he said later.

Maria continued to repeat, “God does not want this! You will go to hell!” With her right hand she
tried to hold her dress modestly over her knees. Then, mercifully, she lost consciousness.

After the blows, Alessandro thought her dead. Dumbfounded, he got up. Blood had sobered him.
He threw the knife behind the closet, went to his room, and locked the door. The sun was now flooding in by the window. The black clouds were scattering in the distance; the storm had passed. The cracking of bean stalks and the shouts of the children continued in the yard.


Outside the thrashing carried on without respite, though less hurriedly, as the threatening storm had
passed. All that remained was to separate the chaff from the grain and gather the precious harvest into
the barn. In the evening, a bonfire of stalks would symbolize the family joy and abundance. But Alessandro had not returned, baby Theresa could be heard crying on the porch, and Assunta
became worried.

“Mariano, go see what is keeping Alessandro, and tell Maria to look after the baby. I’m afraid the
child will fall down the stairs.” Suddenly a call resounded from the house. “Assunta! Assunta! Come here!” It was Giovanni, yelling as though the house were afire. What now? Surely something serious had happened.

The poor mother dropped everything and hurried up the stairs and into the room where Maria lay writhing in pain; close at her heels came her neighbors, Theresa Cimarelli and faithful Domenico. All were filled with confusion at the sight of Maria’s bloody body and the room in disarray. Tenderly, Domenico lifted Maria and carried her into the bedroom. The sight of the limp form of her daughter was too much for poor Assunta. She grew weak and fell fainting on the floor.

When Assunta revived, Theresa was working over Maria and Giovanni was explaining his story.
“I was sleeping in the shade beside the house when the baby awoke me with her crying. I didn’t pay
much attention to that, but then I heard Maria calling with a feeble voice from the doorway. So I got up, and just in time to see her fall in the doorway. She had fainted, so I shouted for Assunta and all of you. I don’t know what happened. But look, her dress is blood-stained.”

Assunta leaned over her daughter: “Maria, what has happened?” The girl made no reply. Apparently she was suffocating. With her hands, she was trying to undo her clothing. Her mother lent a hand, unhooking and loosening the blouse, and a trickle of red blood crept across her throat. With infinite precaution, the two women raised her a bit and slid out her arms from the sleeves, and removed the blouse. Her
underclothing was all saturated with blood.

On her breast near the heart, the thin blade had made a narrow but deep entry. Four gashes criss-
crossed the stomach. The whole of that little body was horribly torn. Blood congealed about the
wounds and trickled in drops upon the sheet. The heroic child did not even whimper. It was
her rest after the battle, repose after victory. Her long, disheveled hair formed an aureole beneath
her head. Her discolored lips remained closed. They had not yet revealed the name of the assailant.

“Maria, my little one, tell me what has happened! Who did this to you?” Maria hesitated a bit, then, raising her large, innocent eyes to her mother, she whispered: “It was Alessandro, Mama.” “Who? Alessandro! But why?” Maria seemed to reflect before speaking. The whole drama repassed swiftly before her eyes. Then quietly she answered: “Because he wanted to commit an awful sin, and I would not.”

There was the secret of her martyrdom. The two women dared not pry further. Meanwhile there was much going on outside. Domenico had hitched up his cart and had hurried off to get a doctor at Nettuno. Along the way, he notified neighbors, and the tragic news flew from farm to farm. “A crime committed at Ferriere; Maria attacked.” Housework, plowing, gardens, and sheep were abandoned, and the whole countryside seemed to flock to “the old cheese factory.” Some of the men carried pitchforks, others clubs, and still others came with rifles. No one knew what to expect.

Soon the house was thronged. Women were getting in each other’s way, and everybody wanted to see the little victim. She was so sweet and good! Some wept, others whispered in little groups. With each newcomer the details were told again, and Alessandro’s name was repeated over and over. The blood on the floor seemed to tell its own story. Suddenly there was a commotion. Someone discovered the knife behind the closet. Indignation flared up, tempers grew hot. “Alessandro!” “Where is Alessandro!”

“He must be here,” shouted one of the men, trying the door. “But the door is barred from the inside.” Several tried to force the oak panel with their shoulders. Someone suggested getting a crowbar. Then Count Mazzoleni came rushing in. Seeing the men struggling to get at Alessandro, he tried to calm them: “No, wait, better notify the police. They’ll come and arrest him.” For Mazzoleni feared that these excited men might only add murder to murder. So two of the farmers then rushed off for the police—one to Nettuno and the other to Citerna.

But so many people and such turmoil in the next room was fatiguing to Maria. In vain did she beg to be left alone with her mother and godmother. Each one thought his or her presence necessary in the room. Only Dr. Bartoli’s arrival restored order, and everyone was put out of the house. The doctor made his examination quickly. The case was most serious. An operation was necessary. Another messenger was sent for an ambulance to bring Maria to the hospital. First aid was administered, and with the help of bed-sheeting the poor body was bandaged temporarily.

Precious time slipped by in waiting for the ambulance, and though the others were impatient, Maria remained quiet. Her body was weakening steadily. Since two o’clock that afternoon she had been bleeding, and it was six o’clock before the horse-drawn ambulance arrived.


The stretcher had to be brought right up to the bedside. Maria had become limp. Painful gasps
escaped her when the doctor and Domenico roused her, though they were ever so gentle. They laid her
on the stretcher, covered her with a blanket, and carried her down to the ambulance at the bottom
of the stairway.

Neighbors crowded around to see their Maria for the last time. Her brothers and sisters climbed into
the wagon to kiss her good-bye. She was haggard, pale, and disfigured. Tears welled up in her dark
eyes and stole furtively down her cheeks. Assunta took her position at her head; the doctor sat up
with the driver, and they were off. This was Maria’s farewell to Ferriere . . . and theirs to her.
White pigeons careened overhead, turning and fluttering about the roof she called home.

Many a time Maria had traveled these seven miles of dusty road to Nettuno. Many happy trips
she had made along this way with Theresa Cimarelli to sell their poultry and eggs. Other times, too, she
had gone this way with her dear mother to visit the shrine of Our Lady of Grace. She had been
able to laugh then and enjoy life, which seemed pleasant in spite of hardships. But now her teeth
are clenched, her face is set, and her hands clutch the side of the stretcher. The road is rough, the
horses unsteady, and with every jolt her whole body is dipped anew in a flood of pain.

“Are you suffering, my little one?” Assunta asks. Maria makes an effort to smile. “Yes, Mama, a
little. Have we still far to go?” With great effort she turns her head a little to the side, trying to recognize some familiar landmark: trees along the way, the cemetery fence, the iron cross at the fork in the road. At last they reach the bridge over the canal—the halfway mark. How long these seven miles seem. Pain racks her body.

Even breathing is painful. Stiffly her head returns to the cushion; her feverish eyes stare up into the
blue heavens, which never seemed so beautiful as now. At a bend in the road two mounted policemen
hurried past the ambulance. Between their two horses, a handcuffed man was dragged on foot.
Assunta was not able to conceal her surprise. In the perspiring, dust-covered runner she recognized
Alessandro. Fortunately, Maria had seen nothing. As they entered Nettuno, crowds gathered and
escorted the ambulance. The sad story had preceded them. The arrival of the criminal had been witnessed at the prison gates with threatening tumult.

At the Orsenigo Hospital doorway, throngs had gathered in silent awe. Everybody wanted to see
the heroine. And they did see her, as the stretcher was borne up the stairway. Surrounded by a wave of chestnut hair, a beautiful, innocent face looked kindly out on them and tried to smile. When the
doors of the hospital shut her from their eyes, the crowd dispersed and some were heard to murmur:

“She’s a real martyr.” The voice of the people had already canonized Maria Goretti. Yet she had not achieved her full measure of suffering. A second time she must experience the knife on her flesh. The hospital chaplain came to visit her on the operating table. She betrayed no concern, but gladly went to Confession. Perhaps she scarcely believed death to be near. At such an early age, one does not feel death’s approach. The body is too well equipped for reaction against even the most severe suffering. As the priest was leaving, a surgeon whispered in his ear: “Where you have found an angel, I am afraid we will leave but a corpse.”

Fourteen wounds were discovered, the intestines were torn, the lungs were pierced completely
through, and the heart grazed. The lower bone structure was seriously injured, showing four chest
wounds and five in the abdominal region. Added to this were five minor gashes. Stitching and bandaging only added torture to the poor sufferer. In spite of her intense pain, she remained calm, invoking the Blessed Virgin Mary. The surgical work continued for two long hours. No anesthetic was administered because the attendants feared peritonitis. Finally, she lost consciousness.

When Assunta entered the sick-room, she thought her child was dead, and she began to cry. Little by little, Maria recovered. Her eyelids slowly opened. She called for water, but that relief had to
be denied her; she willingly accepted the sacrifice in remembrance of Jesus’ thirst on the Cross. She
was told not to speak, but she had difficulty in understanding that, because she felt she was much
better. Her sufferings had abated somewhat. She remained motionless. Her body was completely
wrapped as in a cast. Only her arms were outside the covers, but she could not move them without
great pain. Her bloodless hands were cold and white and her feet like ice. Towards ten o’clock in the evening, she seemed to be slipping into a coma. She moaned continually.

Dr. Bartoli dropped in again before leaving the hospital for the night. He urged Assunta to go and take some rest. A nurse would remain with Maria. When finally the poor mother agreed to go, the noise of the chair on the stone floor awoke the sufferer. She guessed that her mother was leaving. An effort of protest came to her, but the word was not uttered. Courageous to the end, she accepted still another sacrifice.

Throughout the night, in a half-conscious state, she moaned as though hot flames bathed her body.
Spasms of pain racked her nerves. Every now and then a convulsion would bring an involuntary cry
to her lips. At dawn, exhausted, she fell into a labored sleep. At five o’clock, Dr. Bartoli returned. He found
her sleeping. Her respiration was regular but scarcely perceptible. A half-hour later she awoke with a groan. She seemed to remember nothing that had happened. When Assunta entered with the hospital chaplain, a light smile passed over Maria’s face.

She told her mother that she felt well, inquired where she had passed the night, spoke of her brothers and sisters and said she would like to see them. Her thoughts went back to Ferriere without any
fright. The name of Alessandro did not cross her lips, nor did anyone dare recall to her mind the
tragic events of the preceding day. When the priest offered to bring her Holy Communion, her face lit up with evident joy. She had been expecting that Visitor. Slowly she crossed her hands on her breast and asked her mother to raise the pillow a bit.

Her soul was ready, but there remained one more heroic act before her final tryst with God. The
chaplain reminded her of how Jesus had pardoned His murderers when He died upon the Cross.
She seemed to reflect. Her eyes rested upon the crucifix on the wall. Then with voice expressive
of her generous soul, she said: “Yes, for the love of Jesus I too pardon him, and I want him to be with me in heaven.”

Assunta wept. The priest too brushed away the tears as he turned to get the Blessed Sacrament.
In a few moments he was back, and Maria received her dear Jesus in Holy Viaticum.

Ten o’clock that morning Dr. Bartoli returned to change the dressings. Great violet scabs had formed
about the wounds. Black and blue lumps now showed on knee, legs, and elbow, indicating with what desperate efforts the child had defended herself. But these were only slight injuries compared to the wounds she had received. The perforation of the intestines was especially grave. Internal hemorrhages were threatening blood poisoning that could carry her off within a few hours. The doctor saw by the failing respiration that the end was not far off.

During the morning Sergeant Fantini came to question the victim and draw up a charge against Alessandro. Maria answered calmly in monosyllables, without showing the least resentment. When she was asked where the dagger had struck, she pointed very simply to the wounds in her breast, adding modestly, “and elsewhere.” He and the carabiniere dared not inquire further.

When Assunta was again alone with her daughter, she asked if Alessandro had not tried to seduce her at other times. Maria admitted simply that there were two other attempts, which she had rejected.
“But why didn’t you tell me about it?” Assunta pleaded. “Because he said he would kill me if I did.” Then
with a sigh, “And you see, he killed me anyway.” By now Maria was failing fast. Extreme Unction
was administered, and for three hours she battled with an invisible enemy. Her head swayed on the
pillow, her hands clenched. “Alessandro! Alessandro, let me go . . . NO! NO! NO! You will go to hell! Mama, Mama, help!” The memory of the struggle haunted her delirium.

Some moments of lucidity pierced through those trying hours. “Mama,” she said, “forgive me.” The
mother’s answer was a mother’s kiss. The last agony began at three o’clock in the afternoon. Maria’s eyes settled on the statue of Our Lady placed at the foot of her bed. Suddenly her lips stammered, “Theresa.” The nurse took her icy hand: “Your baby sister is not here, Maria.”

A long spasm shook her whole body, her muscles tensed, she threw back her head violently against the pillow. A long gasp seemed to tear out her lungs. Her head settled calmly on the pillow.

The light in her beautiful eyes went out. Maria had breathed her last. God had already rewarded her
victory. It was July 6, 1902, the first Sunday in July, Feast of the Precious Blood. Out over the city, bells were ringing the Vesper hour. In the nearby church, Passionists were chanting the antiphon from Vespers of the Feast of the Precious Blood: “Who is this that cometh . . . this beautiful one. . . Why then is thy apparel red, and thy garments like theirs that tread in the wine press?”

This article is taken from three chapters in In Garments All Red by Fr. Godfrey Poage, which is available from TAN Books.



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