Little Mary Fontanella, age six, schemed with her younger brother to imitate the saints and run away to live “in the desert.” But on the appointed day they slept in and spoiled their plans. A decade later, however, Mary entered a personal desert when she joined the Carmelite convent of St. Cristina at Turin, Italy. At first she was overcome with homesickness, detested the pattern of life, and did not get along with the novice mistress. But she persevered and was professed as Sister Mary of the Angels.
Then came an even more serious trial. An extended period of spiritual darkness engulfed Mary. And constant attacks from evil spirits and other diabolical manifestations intensified her desolation. But guided by a wise spiritual director; after three years, she finally emerged from her struggle to a more peaceful and deeper life of prayer.
Mary did not think the adversities that had overwhelmed her were enough penance for her sins. So she aggressively tortured her body with unusual ascetical practices, including binding her tongue with an iron ring and suspending herself from ropes in the form of a cross. Contemporary Christians judge such things as excessive, and one biographer cautioned that no one ought either to admire or imitate Mary’s penances.
Sister Mary of the Angels was elected novice mistress at age 30 and prioress at age 33. She governed the Carmel at St. Cristina competently. If her own piety had its extremes, her direction for her sisters was more balanced, as her meditation in preparation for Christmas demonstrated:
Purity is so pleasing to God that his divine Son, having resolved to become man by the operation of the Holy Spirit, wished to be born of a virgin mother. We all know with what an abundance of graces and with what extraordinary purity God was pleased to adorn the body and soul of Mary. Thus he made her a dwelling worthy of the Word who was to become flesh in her chaste womb. So if we wish to induce the Incarnate God to be born spiritually in our souls, we must secure purity of conscience for ourselves. The right way to accomplish this is to banish from our hearts even the smallest faults and cultivate in them all the virtues.
O Lamb of God! How efficacious the sweetness of your love should be in softening the hardness of my heart! I detest my sins with all my strength because they are opposed to your infinite goodness. Imprint on my heart such repentance that I may prefer to die rather than ever to offend you again.
When the sisters were about to elect Mary to a fifth term as prioress, she begged God that if it were his will she might soon die. Three weeks later her prayer was answered and she fell ill and died on December 16, 1717.
from Voices of the Saints, by Bert Ghezzi