It was Saturday night in Lucca, so what did Patricia and I do? Did we go out for a hot time in the old town? Of course not. Like the good Catholic girls we are, we went to church.
The Sanctuary of St. Gemma was a 15 minute walk from our hotel. It’s a church and monastery and is the burial place of St. Gemma. Never heard of St. Gemma? Neither had we.
Gemma was born Maria Gemma Galgani in 1878, the fifth of eight children of a well-to-do family, and raised in Lucca. She wanted to become a nun but her chronic ill heath lead to her rejection by the Passionists, a missionary and contemplative religious institute.
Throughout her life, Gemma said that she had mystical experiences and visions — of angels and saints, of Jesus and Mary — in which she was told of things that would happen in the future. She said that she levitated. She showed marks on her hands and feet and said that she’d been marked with a stigmata. Many were skeptical. A physician who examined her said that they were self inflicted wounds. Her childhood physician believed that she suffered from hysteria and mental illness.
Still, she had her supporters and among them (though there were skeptics there too) was the Catholic Church. Gemma died of tuberculosis at age 25, in 1903, and she was canonized in 1940. One of the things she said that Jesus wanted was for a Passionist monastery be built in Lucca. In what her followers believe is a prophesy fulfilled, the monastery was begun in 1935 and finished in 1965.
The interior of the church is interesting for its art by Primo Conti, a Futurist and sometime Fascist. The piece above the main altar shows a crucified Christ imprinting the stigmata onto St. Gemma. The mosaic on the right is of St. Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows. Another saint I’d never heard of, Gabriel was a 19th century Passionist who also died of tuberculosis, at age 23.
During the service, female voices, accompanied by an organ, filled the church. But there had been no organ or female choir in sight. I kept searching and eventually saw that louvered panels behind the altar had opened, to allow a resident congregation of cloistered Passionist nuns to participate in the service and to allow us a glimpse of the shadowy figures behind.
St. Gemma’s body is buried beneath the main altar. Her heart is at a Passionist church in Madrid. They may have rejected her in life, but they’ve definitely embraced her in death.
French essayist Pierre Jovanovic called her the prettiest of all the saints and likened her to Marilyn Monroe because ” sa beauté a été figée par sa mort.” Her beauty was frozen by her death. We went up to take a closer look after mass. The bronze sculpture is by Francesco Nagni, a significant Italian artist of the early mid 20th century.
We’d run into another couple from our tour group at the church, and after mass we all walked back to a pizza parlor we’d seen near the hotel. La Vespa Pizzeria on Via Romana turned out to be an excellent choice. Patricia and I ordered a pizza margherita, for 4 euro, and it was more than enough for us to share. We found that food, if you stayed away from full service restaurants, wasn’t that expensive in Italy. At La Vespa, we ordered and paid at a counter, then took our pizza to an available table. Another couple from the tour group wandered in and joined us, and the six of us had a lovely, cheap, pizza-filled evening.
Our hotel in Lucca was the Grand Hotel Guinigi, part of the Best Western chain. It was my least favorite hotel on our trip, because of the suburban location (although it was within walking distance of the walled city). No ambiance. But it was a perfectly nice, clean, mid-level hotel.