MEMORIES FROM OF YORESister Maelisa Coffey OP
It was a late afternoon on a brisk day, 20 October 1933, when three weary postulants – Eileen Humphreys, Mary Keohane and Ellen Coffey (Sisters Pius Antoninus, Joseph and Maelisa respectively) – arrived at Villa Rosa on the Aventine Hill in Rome. Theirs had been a long and tedious two-day journey; train-boat-train from London then south through France, across the Alps and all the way down the long leg of Italy. Fr Leo Arnold OP, an American Dominican and a relation of Sr Raymond Blake, and a student at the Angelicum, had been spending his summer break at our convent, St Dominic’s, Ponsbourne Park, which was then the Novitiate house in England. He was returning to Rome to continue his studies and was asked to shepherd the tiros.
Little remains in my memory of our arrival at Villa Rosa. The community was mourning Mother Columba Healey who had died earlier that day. She was a loss to the Congregation as she had been responsible for the translation into French of the Constitutions before they was presented for Papal approval. As a Sister of His Excellency, Mr Timothy Healey, the last Governor General of Ireland, Mother Columba was a person of influence; a truly committed and devout religious she had been an example to the novices.
One indelible memory remains with me of my second night in Villa Rosa. According to Italian law of those days, a corpse had to remain uncoffined for at least 24 hours before being removed for burial. Mother Columba Healy was laid out in a room. Two Sisters kept vigil in turn by her bedside until her funeral. The second night, Mary and I (Ellen) were assigned the watch from 2-3am. This was a new and rather daunting experience for me. Awakened at that unseemly hour, we dressed quickly and made our way downstairs. Not a word was spoken. Mary, calm and unperturbed took her place by the bedside and prayed while I hesitated in the doorway. Seeing a chair just inside the door I sat down and did not move until the hour was up – the longest hour in my young life!
I adapted quickly to an entirely new way of life. In retrospect, I now realise that account was taken of my age – one month short of my fourteenth birthday! Study and school occupied most of the day. Sister de Ricci O’Brien and Mother Bruno O’Grady were our teachers. Mother Bruno was also Novice Mistress. In those days no Sister left the house unaccompanied. I was often sent with Mother Patrick or Sister Paula when they had to attend to community needs.
Every Saturday, Sister Paula and I went to the market to buy a week’s supply of vegetables. Sister Paula, in full habit and mantle, and I in my postulant’s dress and mantle, walked the mile plus to the large city market. At that time, the people of Italy were living in dire poverty; women in ankle length denim garments were the market porters. As each purchase was made, one of these porters took it to a horse-drawn cart outside the gate. Each dealer had his own facchina (female who carries luggage) who carried the heavy loads on their heads for the paltry sum of a soldi, at that time about five cents. Sometimes it required two men to lift the load on to the porter’s head.
On this particular Saturday our carrier told us that he would be unable to bring our purchases to Villa Rosa until the late afternoon: the road was closed because Signor Mussolini, Il Duce, was to open a new roadway and nobody was allowed to pass. As the cook was depending on our purchases for the midday meal we loaded cabbages, potatoes and other vegetables into three home-made hessian containers – the community at that time numbered more than forty – before heading for home.
Reaching the Pyramids of Cestius at the bottom of the hill—only one kilometre from our destination—our way was halted. Soldiers were lined up along each side of Viale Aventino! Nothing daunted, Sister Paula approached an officer and explained our predicament. He readily understood and detailed one of his men to accompany us to our front door. Each of us carrying our vegetables in one hand and carrying another sack between us, guarded by a soldier, we walked in dead silence the length of Viale Aventino that was lined with military in full dress uniform. When we reached the entrance to the Convent our guard smartly clicked his heels, saluted and departed.
Rome has changed greatly over the years. For some weeks Mary and I slept in what was then the Chapter Room. Looking out its window across the present Piazza Santa Prisca, we could see a field being ploughed by a man in a smock; he was bare footed and was ploughing with two oxen. Circo Massimo was a slum filled with people living in makeshift shelters of wood or cardboard. Ragged children, begrimed and sickly, sat around listlessly; evidently, they did not go to school. Via della Terme Deciane, where Villa Rosa was, was still unpaved. Today the Aventine is an exclusive area having among its residents several embassies as well as twenty religious Orders and Congregations, including the ‘headquarters’ of the Order of Preachers at Santa Sabina.
Fr Antonius, a French-Canadian priest, was our chaplain throughout the three years I was in Rome. He and another Brother resided at Santa Sabina. Allowed by the State the use of a few rooms, they lived sparsely on a stipend given by the Sisters of Villa Rosa. The monastery had been confiscated by Garabaldi during the War of Italian Unification (1815-1871) and was being used as a military hospital. In 1935, the then Master, Fr Martin-Marie Stanislaus Gillet, came to an agreement with Mussolini by which the priory was returned to the Order in exchange for the Orange Trees Gardens on either side of the buildings. These gardens are now State property and are open to the general public. The Master and his Council took immediate possession of the monastery. With the generous contribution of sponsors, the monastery has been restored and modernised. The church too had been neglected and had fallen into disrepair. Today, it is maintained by the State which remains responsible for its structural maintenance.
I stayed in Rome for three years and to the present day remain deeply grateful to all those who initiated and guided me into the Dominican way of life. From them I received my education as well as a love for our Congregation and St Dominic’s way of life. I pray that I have never let them down.
Sister Maelisa celebrated the Oak Jubilee of her Religious Profession in 2016: that is 80 years of consecrated fidelity. Thanks be to God!
Sister Maelisa was called Home to God, to her eternal reward with the One to whom she committed her life of prayer and service on 25 September 2019.
May she rest in peace and be raised in glory.