My mother kept a small picture frame on her dressing table, containing a picture of a lovely lady with two children. Our family were not Roman Catholic, so I had no way of knowing this was the Virgin and child with John the Baptist.
When I asked what it was, she said it came from Auntie Rosina. This was curious as I thought I knew all my aunts – who was this? My father would grimace and mutter about “uncomfortable chairs”. It was very mysterious!
As I grew older, I came to understand that my grandfather Riccardo Moni, who had died before I was born, was from another country – Italy. My mother had travelled there as a young child and lived for some years in his home city, Cremona, with her parents and sister. This is where she met Zia (Auntie) Rosina, her father’s sister.
Rosina was a nun at a convent in the middle of the city, the Collegio Beata Vergine, which was also a boarding school for girls. My mother and her sister began their schooling there, with special permission not to board as my mother was then only three years old and neither of them spoke Italian.
The children of a prominent lawyer, Rosina and her brothers were educated at private schools. In those days, that meant boarding away from the family. Rosina was sent to the Collegio Beata Vergine, just a few blocks away from her family home. Students didn’t go home for school holidays, instead they were spent in the “holiday convents” owned by the order, one at Bellagio on Lake Como and one near Trieste. She would only see her family perhaps once or twice a year, and only in the formal “receiving room”.
When she left school, Rosina returned to her family home and no doubt engaged in the social activities of the city. However, at 25 she entered the Noviciate of the order that she knew so well. Apparently, my grandfather was very cynical about this, saying they wanted her for her dowry and she was unduly influenced in her decision. Be that as it may, she seems to have led a happy and fulfilling life in the convent.
Mum got to know Rosina better when the family visited Cremona again in 1928-1929, when she was a teenager. There was to be one more visit in 1952 when my mother, now married and holidaying in Europe, insisted on visiting her Auntie Rosina and introducing her to her husband. Rosina’s was a closed order, meaning nuns were to have no contact with the outside world, but she had special permission to see my parents and even to forgo any commitments to do so, as they had come from so far away to see her. Unfortunately for my father, the one room in which Rosina was allowed to see my parents was a very formal lounge with delicate Louise XIV chairs on which visitors had to “perch”. My father was a bloke from the bush and found this very challenging!
Many years later my husband and I visited Cremona and arranged to see the convent. I wondered what I might hear about my great aunt, and if my husband would also be subjected to the challenging “receiving room”. We were relieved to discover that the convent is now a high school specialising in teaching languages, and a sister with fluent English showed us all over the convent and school. She couldn’t tell me much about Rosina as I didn’t know the name she had taken as a nun. To my delight, I later received a Christmas card from Mother Nancy (our guide) enclosing a translation of all they had in their archives about Rosina, or Sister Maria as she was known in the Order. This is what the Order’s archives told me about her:
“Born in Cremona on the 19th of September 1871, she entered the Novitiate on the 4th of November 1896 and did her perpetual Profession on the 11th of August 1901.
As she had been a boarder in our College and the daughter of a distinguished professional man who was the counsellor of the Sisters for a long time, she knew the history of our College very well and was faithful to traditions.
She didn’t smile very often but was always happy and good and everyone could go to her sure of getting help.
Her various duties included teaching in the primary school, teaching religious knowledge in the College’s houses at Cremona, Trieste and Bellagio, assisting boarder students, school bursar (supervising student enrolment fees, accounts, payments, and reports) and helping with the linen and lace making.
Very good at making tombolo lace (using a special pillow on which the lace is worked with wooden ‘spanners’) and “guipure” (a heavy lace consisting of embroidered motifs held together by large connecting stitches), she made marvellous lace pieces to decorate the altar.
Community life was of the utmost importance for her and it was edifying seeing her, already very old, following the time-table of our religious life with great diligence.
On the 11th of August 1951 she celebrated the 50th anniversary of her Religious Profession with deep faith and gratitude.
She was 88 when she died on the 22nd of January 1960, after spending the last two years of her life bedridden.”
I looked again at the photograph I have of Rosina and, for the first time, noticed the glorious flow of lace beside her, with the tombolo and wooden spanners. I suspect that this skill was her pride and joy.
How lovely to have had the opportunity to know more about my great aunt, the nun. I treasure even more the little framed image of the Madonna with its hand-drawn decorative surrounds, now sitting on my dressing table.
Information about making lace using a tombolo can be found here: https://www.e-borghi.com/en/curiosities/373/offida-craftsmanship-the-renowned-tombolo-lace.html
For more about the painting that is copied in the frame: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madonna_della_Seggiola