Feast Day : 12th June
‘Like Novice Mistress, Like Novice?’ Not Really!
She might have been standing on the shoulders of a giant, but the new Capuchin Poor Clare Abbess of Città di Castello had to build her own unique stairway to heaven. For no two Capuchins are exactly the same and, for that reason, every Capuchin called to holiness of life must travel their own path to Christ, Who is, Himself, the Way that we all must follow to reach the Father’s House. When the renowned Capuchin mystic, Saint Veronica Giuliani, died on the 9th of July 1727, the Capuchin Poor Clare Sisters of Città di Castello elected her disciple Sister Florida Cevoli as her successor. No one seemed better placed to carry on the work of Mother Veronica. It was, in fact, due to Sister Veronica’s fame for holiness that Lucretia Helen Cevoli(Sister Florida’s secular name) had entered the Capuchin Poor Clares in the first place. Sister Veronica was at first reluctant to accept the young Countess Cevoli as a novice, but she was soon persuaded of the genuineness of the young woman’s vocation. When Sister Veronica was later elected Abbess in 1716, Sister Florida Cevoli became her Vicaress and, for the next eleven years, the two worked hand in glove for the good of the Community. Like Saint Veronica, the new Abbess too took an active role in the younger Sisters’ formation. She had been Saint Veronica’s secretary and in this case the word ‘secretary’ retains the true sense of the original word root means a close confidante (with whom one can share one’s secrets) and a trusted collaborator. Furthermore, as Abbess, she made every effort to ensure to preserve and publicise Sister Veronica’s spiritual legacy. And she worked ceaselessly for Sister Veronica’s beatification and canonization while providing lengthy testimonies to the Investigating Tribunal for her beatification and canonization and printing biographies and holy pictures of the venerable Servant of God. She even had a Monastery built on the site of Sister Veronica’s family home in Mercatello. Sister Florida loved her former Novice Mistress and admired her deeply but, for her, Mother Veronica was a model of faithfulness to God, not a pattern to be slavishly reproduced. Mimicry was never Sister Florida’s thing. So she studiously strove to keep her distance from any extraordinary phenomena that might have placed on a par with the famous Stigmatist. Hers was much more a spirituality of the every day, hers was a holy but ordinary life, extraordinarily well lived. And when Sister Florida was beatified by Blessed Pope John Paul II in 1993, her own particular heroic sanctity received the Church’s recognition.
More a ‘Martha’ than a ‘Mary’
No one understood their contrasting styles of holiness better than their fellow Sisters who left us these words : “Sister Veronica was very good at praying. Sister Florida had more spirit and more courage.” Both these Sisters were endowed with the contemplative spirit of Mary and Martha’s spirit of practical service, but it would be fair to say that Sister Florida was much more practically minded. Never afraid to get her hands dirty, she carried out the most menial of services for the Sisters in the Monastery, undertaking the tasks of Cook, Infirmarian, Baker, Pharmacist and Sister responsible for keeping the hatch through which offerings, goods, correspondence etc... were passed pack and forth. She had, as one fellow Sister put it, “a hundred eyes and as many hands.”
An Aristocratic Childhood
Yet when she first knocked at the Monastery door requesting admittance no one expected the young aristocrat to be able to endure the hardships and austerity of Capuchin Poor Clare living. For before she became a Nun, Sister Florida Cevoli had been a Countess in her own right. She was born in the town of Pisa, Northern Italy, on the 11th of November, 1685, the eleventh of Count Curtius Cevoli of Pisa and his wife, the Marquise Laura della Seta’s fourteen children. The newborn Countess Cevoli, whose baptismal name was baptized Lucretia Helen, turned out to be a chubby baby and as a result was late learning to walk. Soon she was the centre of her family’s attention but, even as a child, she felt drawn to Jesus as a future Spouse and was ready to forego even innocent childish pleasures for love of Him. At the age of thirteen she was sent to a Ladies Finishing School run by the Poor Clares of St. Martin. There she received a good classical education, mastering Latin and Italian and excelling in poetry composition, embroidery, calligraphy and other skills appropriate to a young Lady of her ilk. However she was not musically gifted and, when she sang, her voice left much to be desired. As a student in the school Lucretia Helen was noted by her teachers not only for her intelligence but her love of solitude and silent prayer. Added to the was her noticeably grave demeanour, which led to her being nicknamed ‘the Little Abbess.’
Christ’s Noble Bride Adjusts to an Austere Married Life
Yet at the end of the five-yearlong education course at Saint Martin’s Monastery, Countess Lucretia Helen Cevoli did not become a Poor Clare Nun there; rather, to everyone’s surprise, she opted to join the Capuchin Poor Clares in far-off Città di Castello. In accordance with the customs of the time, her journey to the Monastery was a spectacle quite similar to the wedding procession of any noble bride. Dressed in a pink brocade bridal gown, she made her rounds of relatives and friends to bid a last farewell in a horse-drawn carriage escorted by Knights on horseback and waited upon by retinue of ladies of noble rank. When she eventually arrived at the Città di Castello Monastery’s main entrance, she carried a large wooden cross on her shoulders and made her way through the cloister doors for the first and last time. But she had to wait a few more days before she was received as a novice on the 7th of June, 1703. From that moment onwards Countess Lucretia Helen Cevoli would be simply known as Sister Florida. The first few months of her novitiate were not that easy. Her fellow Capuchin Poor Clares seemed more akin to demons than religious. However, with Saint Veronica’s help and expert guidance, Sister Florida went on to not only adapt smoothly to the hardships of the Capuchiness Novitiate, but even to supplement these with a few self-imposed hardships of her own. She displayed a strong desire for contemplative prayer and readily engaged in the life of the Community. She made Solemn Profession on the 10th of June, 1704, but, as was normal at the time, she remained in the novitiate for a further two years of formation. But she undertook this two-yearlong formation course wearing the white veil of a novice, rather than the usual black veil of a Professed Nun.
A Sister Among Sisters and Zealous Promoter of Poverty
The responsible duties entrusted to Sister Florida by the Community from the moment she was professed clearly demonstrate the fact that, despite her young age, she was a mature, reliable and competent religious, a hard worker, endowed with natural-born leadership qualities. Little wonder then that the Sisters chose her as Vicaress when they elected Sister Veronica as Abbess and that Florida was herself elected Abbess after Saint Veronica’s death in 1727. As Abbess, she inculcated in her Sisters a more genuine devotion to Saint Francis and Saint Clare and was always anxious to reinforce an authentic observance of the Rule of Saint Clare. She was particularly uncompromising in everything concerning poverty. She replaced the crystal holy water fonts in the Sisters’ cells with earthenware crocks. She took down the oil paintings of the Way of the Cross that hung on the walls the Monastery’s choir and hung up simple black and white prints of the fourteen stations in their stead. She even tore off the gold ornamentation and brocades that embellished the liturgical vestments kept in the sacristy. As the years went by, she somewhat eased up in her demands on the Sisters in this respect but she herself continued to lead a life of strictest poverty to the end. As a typical Capuchin, she was generous in providing whatever was necessary for the other Sisters’ health and personal hygiene, but unrelentingly harsh on herself. Her rough habit, for instance, had so many patches sown on that it is hard to make out the original material any more. Moreover, Sister Florida who was steeped in the genuine Capuchin Franciscan tradition which stresses fraternal charity, joyful fellowship and equality, strove to rid the Monastery of all the social distinctions that can plague Community living. As Abbess, she expected genuine obedience but wanted no special treatment accorded to her and insisted that the Sisters address her simply as ‘Sister Florida’. She also insisted that all the Sisters were to use the more intimate polite Italian second person pronoun of “voi”(a less formal polite form of ‘you’ in English) in addressing each other, instead of the then prevalent formal word, “Lei”(somewhat akin to ‘your ladyship’ in English), a highly honourific form of address with inherent connotations of formalism and social inequality. She was less successful in her efforts to integrate the Extern Sisters into the enclosed community, which were met with stiff resistance, and, in the end, she had to give upon this project altogether.
A Lamp Brightly Shining Forth from the Lampstand of God’s House
The former Countess Cevoli tried her best to forget her social rank but it remained a reality that could not be ignored. From the time she was elected Abbess, Sister Florida’s reputation for holiness spread far and wide and she became more famous during her lifetime than Saint Veronica had been during hers. People from all walks of life visited her and corresponded with her by mail. Among her visitors were Princess Violante de’ Medici from Tuscany and the Polish Princess Maria Clementina Sowieski, Consort of Prince James Stuart, “the Old Pretender” to the Thrones of England, Scotland Ireland and France. Sister Florida Cevoli hidden contempative life was a brilliant ray of light that pierced the walls of the enclosed Monastery and enlightened all around her, especially those in need of her prayers, advice or encouragement. The townspeople of Città di Castello came to owe Sister Florida a huge debt of gratitude. In 1758 they had unsuccessfully rebelled against the Pope who was the Ruler of the Papal States But thanks to Sister Florida’s mediation. they were able to obtain a general amnesty from Pope Clement XIII.
Humility and Patience in Suffering
She had witnessed many of Saint Veronica’s mystical experiences, and she herself had no small share of her own. But she did everything she could to keep these hidden. We will never get to read her spiritual diary. She made sure to burn it as soon as the confessor who made her keep it had passed away. Nevertheless eye witnesses’ testimony and her remaining correspondence give us a glimpse of her personality and spiritual life. Never in good health, during the last years of her life, she suffered from the painful itchiness which is a symptom of the herpes that left her body covered in sores. In 1747, she had prayed to be spared tangible mystical phenomena, including the crowning with thorns and a wound of love that pierced her heart, offering her body to be tormented by natural ailments instead. Contemplating Christ's passion and desiring to become like her Suffering Redeemer, Sister Florida was never one to shy away from physical hardship and bodily sufferings. To these were added an extreme interior sense of desolation, all sorts of temptations and the psychological impact of bodily illness and the debility of old age. Besides the irresistible temptation to scratch, the herpes brought with it the added humiliation of emitting a terrible stench that made her repulsive to anyone who happened to be nearby. All this suffering, she bore with infinite patience, genuine joy and even at time a touch of humour. All the while, however, Sister Florida managed to keep her condition so well hidden from the Sisters, that they never suspected that their hardworking Abbess might be suffering to such an extent. Sister Florida’s humility was outstanding and she was never slow to point out her own defects. “O poor me!” she would sigh “Over all these many years in religion what good I could have done but did not do it! Pray that I may be converted.” She could never fulfil her desire fast due to health problems and she often had to eat some bread outside the community’s mealtimes. When one of the Sisters urged her to be a little more discrete in doing this, lest her bad example should scandalize the younger Sisters, she simply responded: “God knows that I do not fast, and, if he knows it, I am quite happy that his creatures should know it also.”
Passionately in Love with Her “Beloved Good”
As well as being devoted to the Mystery of Christ’s Passion, Sister Florida also sincerely loved the Mystery of Christ in the Eucharist. During her time as Abbess, Holy Communion four times weekly became a common practice in the Monastery – something of a rarity in those days. For Sister Forida, the divine love of Christ’s Sacred Heart was the driving force of her life and her devotion to Mary, His Holy Mother, was always heartfelt and tender. Striving to live always in God’s presence, she paid attention to His indwelling in her soul, even while she occupied herself with everyday tasks. Truly in love with God all her life, she spoke passionately about Him who was her “Beloved Good,” both at Community Chapters or in the course of private conversations with the Sisters.
Two Destinies Forever Intertwined
Sister Florida threw herself wholeheartedly into promoting the cause for Beatification and Canonization of her predecessor, bit unfortunately she did not live to see the beatification for herself. In actual fact, Saint Veronica’s beatification did not occur until 1804 - almost forty years after Sister Florida’s happy death. Sister Florida died blissfully on the 12th of June 1767. Sister Forida’s remains are held in a small container enshrined in a side altar near the Monastic Church’s central altar. Under this central altar is the glass case in which Saint Veronica’s incorrupt body lie enshrined. Together in death as they were in life, the destinies of Blessed Florida Cevoli and Saint Veronica Giuliani remain forever intertwined. For Sister Florida had, right from the time of her religious formation, spent much of her life as a Capuchin right from the time of her religious formation and, indeed,, in the dazzling shadows of the famous Stigmatist, she retained her own unique personality and, by the time of her death, she had, in her own right, become a virgin who carried her very own lamp of burning love, as she set out the meet Christ, her Heavenly Bridegroom.
"Iesus amor, fiat voluntas tua! (Jesus, Love, Your Will be done!) Jesus, have me love You eternally and yearn to suffer and die for You. Crucified Jesus, my Redeemer, imprint Your Holy Wounds in the middle of my heart. Whoever has even a spark of this love will feel nothing as severe as the painfulness of not being able to find You. Pray for me that I may be able to begin to love for the little while that remains to me in life. for up until now I have done nothing." - Blessed Florida Cevoli