In 1900, two farm laborers relocated their destitute families to an old barn near Nettuno, Italy. Luigi Goretti, his wife, Assunta, and their six children moved in with Giovanni Serenelli and Alessandro, his teenaged son. Soon after the move, Luigi died, leaving Assunta to carry on his work. Maria, her oldest child, who was ten, assumed the household duties and cheerfully supported her mother.
At twelve Maria was already a beautiful young woman. Alessandro, then nineteen, twice made advances toward her. She rebuffed him and kept his propositions secret because he had threatened to kill her. On July 5, 1902, Maria sat atop the hovel’s stairs, mending Alessandro’s shirt. He stormed past her, ordered her into a bedroom, grabbed her, and attempted to rape her. “No! No! No!” Maria cried. “Don’t touch me, Alessandro! It’s a sin!” She resisted him with all her strength. Angered beyond control, he stabbed her fourteen times. Maria survived a pain-filled twenty-four hours in the hospital.
She showed more concern for where her mother would sleep in the hospital than for herself. Before she died she forgave Alessandro and prayed for God to have mercy on him.
Alessandro was sentenced to thirty years’ hard labor and imprisoned at Noto, Sicily. One night in 1910 he dreamed that Maria handed him a bouquet of lilies and he began to feel remorse. Soon after, Bishop Blandini of Noto visited him, explaining that Maria had forgiven him and that God would also forgive him. The message struck home. A few days later Alessandro sent the bishop this letter:
I cannot tell you what comfort has come to my sorrowing soul through the conversation with your Excellency, for which I send my most heartfelt gratitude.
It is indeed true that in a moment of mental aberration I was led to commit a barbarous murder which the law has already punished. . . .I regret doubly the evil I have done, because I realize that I have taken the life of a poor, innocent girl. Up to the last moment she wanted to protect her honor, sacrificing herself rather than give in to my wishes. This it was that drove me to so terrible and deplorable a deed. Publicly, I detest the evil that I have done. And I ask God’s forgiveness and that of the poor, desolate family for the great wrong I committed. I hope that I too, like so many others in this world, may obtain pardon. May your prayers united to mine obtain for me the forgiveness of him who governs all things, and the calm and the blessing of the poor departed one.
Alessandro was released from prison early for good behavior. He reformed his life and ultimately joined the Franciscan Third Order. Pope Pius XII canonized Maria Goretti in 1950. Assunta was present for the event, the first time a mother was present when her child was declared a saint.