GREEN BAY — When your mother is a canonized saint, people ask you several things. One is to request your prayers. Others want to share their stories of need and healing.
And the most frequent question? “What is it like to be the daughter of a saint?”
That’s the experience of Dr. Gianna Emanuela Molla, 56, daughter of St. Gianna Beretta Molla, who was canonized in 2004.
Gianna Emanuela was in Green Bay in early November to speak at the fourth annual Gala for St. Gianna Clinic, which is affiliated with HSHS St. Mary’s Hospital Medical Center. The clinic is named after St. Gianna Molla, who was a pediatrician. The gala was in collaboration with the Green Bay Diocesan Office of Marriage, Family Life and Pro-Life.
The clinic is named after St. Gianna Molla, who was herself a pediatrician. The gala was in collaboration with the Green Bay Diocesan Office of Marriage, Family Life and Pro-Life.
In response to this frequent question, the saint’s daughter replied, “First of all, I say that I thank the Lord for this grace, this so very special, very singular grace. Then I say, ‘It’s a great joy, a great honor and also a great responsibility.’”
Since 2010, Gianna Emanuella has devoted her life fulltime to the service of the “Saint Gianna Foundation,” founded in Milan in 1999 by her father, Pietro Molla, and her uncle, Fr. Giuseppe Beretta.
St. Gianna Molla is the patron saint of mothers, physicians, wives, families and unborn children. Gianna Emanuella is the Mollas’ fourth child, arriving after two miscarriages. During St. Gianna’s sixth pregnancy, a large fibroma was discovered in her uterus. Doctors recommended three choices:
- removal of the growth and an abortion;
- a hysterectomy; or
- removal of the growth while continuing the pregnancy.
Her strong faith and devotion to life led St. Gianna to choose the most risky operation to herself: remove the fibroma and save her child.
The surgery was a success, but risks remained and St. Gianna made it clear, as the delivery date approached, that the child’s life was to be saved at all cost — even that of her own life. Gianna Emanuella was born by cesarean section on April 21, 1962.
However, her mother developed a serious infection and died on April 28.
St. Gianna’s selfless act of love and faith soon became known and eventually led to confirmed miracles attributed to her intercession.
At her canonization Mass on May 16, 2004, attended by her husband, Pietro, and their daughter, Gianna Emanuella, St. John Paul II noted that, “Following the example of Christ, who ‘having loved his own… loved them to the end’ (Jn 13: 1), this holy mother of a family remained heroically faithful to the commitment she made on the day of her marriage. The extreme sacrifice she sealed with her life testifies that only those who have the courage to give of themselves totally to God and to others are able to fulfill themselves.”
When St. Gianna’s daughter speaks about her mother today, as she did to the more than 600 people at the clinic’s gala, she also speaks about her family. She speaks of:
her father, who raised his orphaned children and never remarried because he had already found the love of his life;
her father’s mother, Maria Salmoiraghi, who came to live with the family after St. Gianna’s death; and
her own sister, Mariolina (Maria Zita), who died at age 6 from a strep infection that led to kidney failure.
Helping society understand the importance of supporting families and mothers is why Gianna Emanuela visited the St. Gianna Clinic, which offers a wide spectrum of care. She said she receives many requests, from around the world.
However, “since I am a doctor,” she explained, “when something health-related is dedicated to my mom, this is more interesting to me. … I appreciate St. Gianna Clinic, in particular, because I met the staff, the doctors, and I am quite sure that they are faithful to my mom’s message. This is very important. … I am very sad when I discover (places named for her mother) that are not so faithful. “
Dr. Robin Goldsmith, president and CEO of St. Gianna Clinic said she found Gianna Emanuela’s to be “a beautiful joyful message of inspiration and encouragement to always make the soul of her mother the soul of the clinic. … She just made it very clear that the clinic’s mission really embodied her mother’s mission. That her mother truly treated the body, mind and soul of every patient and also tried to care for every person she met.”
Gianna Emanuela reminded the clinic’s staff, supporters and patients that “my mom is an example that it is our duty to follow, trying to do our best. … This place has a big responsibility. … It’s named after a saint. This, on one side, is a great encouragement and a strength, because you know she protects you; on the other side, it is a big responsibility.”
Gianna Emanuela herself feels “a big responsibility,” first to God — whom she thanks for life every morning when she wakes up — and then to her mother, as well as her father. She speaks of them both as “everyday saints.” It is a term first used by the late Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, Archbishop of Milan, about her mother. But Gianna Emanuela also witnessed this type of living while she was growing up.
“To be a saint of everyday life is much more difficult than to be an exceptional saint in a moment,” she said of both her parents. She lived with her dad during the last seven years of his life — he was almost 98 when he died. “Living with my dad, I understood what it is to be a saint of everyday life.”
She speaks of St. Gianna, Pietro Molla and her “big sister, Mariolina” (Maria Zita) as “my guardian angels, who always protect me.”
Gianna Emanuela told The Compass that she felt their presence “strongly” during her visit to the National Shrine of our Lady of God Help in Champion on Nov. 6. She said she found the place to be “very peaceful” and “a holy, blessed land.” She added that, when she prayed there, she addressed Our Lady: “Dear Virgin Mary, you know very well that Mom and Dad, since they were children, prayed. … Please say hello to Mom and Dad for me.”
She also visited the National Shrine of St. Joseph in De Pere on Nov. 7.
While Gianna Emanuela’s mission is to spread her mother’s message of life and trust in God, she also spreads a message inseparable from that of St. Gianna: the value of family.
In so doing Gianna Emanuela speaks of her Aunt Virginia (also a doctor and a sister member of the Canossian Daughters of Mercy religious institute, based in Verona, Italy); of her Aunt Laura, her father’s sister-in-law, who cared Gianna Emanuela during her first six months of life; of her mother’s brother, Fr. Alberto, a missionary doctor in Brazil, who influenced St. Gianna’s decision to become a pediatrician; of her other aunts and uncles; of her brother, Pierluigi, and her sister, Laura; and of Angela Boni, the 22-year-old village farm girl who came to live with the Molla family for 14 years to care for the motherless children. They still remain in regular contact.
Capuchin Fr. Alberto Enrico Beretta’s cause for sainthood was opened in 2008.
Gianna Emanuela also speaks of her grandmother, Maria, who, at age 78, came to live with them to care for the children with Angela’s help. She stayed for the rest of her life, dying at age 93.
Gianna Emanuela said that her earliest memories include her grandmother teaching her to pray and seeing her “always with a rosary in her hand.”
“The first thing, when she saw me in the morning,” Gianna Emanuela recalled of her grandmother, “she asked me if I had made the Sign of the Cross. Now every morning, I always remember, in Milan dialect, “Have you done the Sign of the Cross?’”
It was because of this grandmother that Gianna Emanuela became a geriatrician, a doctor specializing in the care of the elderly.
“She had a stroke when she was 93 years old,” she said of her grandmother, “and she stayed in bed for 40 days, the last 40 days of her long life. She had bedsores, terrible sufferings.
“I suffered a lot, seeing my grandmother in this position,” Gianna Emanuela added. “I thought, ‘I cannot do anything to help her, I have not the ability.’ But I thought that, if the Lord would like me to become a doctor, I would like to become a geriatrician. I could not help my grandmother, but helping other older patients is just like helping my grandmother a little.”
She has since loved her medical work, doing every aspect of care that needed to be done — even emptying bedpans if a nursing assistant wasn’t around.
“The more humble works are very important,” Gianna Emanuela said. “When I practice as a doctor, it is to serve others as Jesus, who came to serve others not to be served.”
Dr. Goldsmith said that Gianna Emanuela’s message reminded her and the clinic staff “that our feeling as doctors and nurses go far beyond the science. Every day, we need to remember that faith is as much or more a part of the healing we provide to our patients and their families. God is the ultimate healer, the divine healer. To always remember to let him do his work. We’re just a small instrument in his hands.”
Gianna Emanuel’s medical skills served her well when her father entered his final years. She cared for him, fulltime, during those last years of his life. And it was her father, Pietro, who helped Gianna Emanuela decide what course her life would follow after his death.
“When my dad was alive, one day I asked him: ‘Dad, when you will be in paradise, I have to decide what to do (go back to medical practice or spread the news of her mother).’
His response was, “People always look to the family of a saint. … There are many sufferings in the world. And people always look for the family because it’s a great consolation for them to know that we pray for them.”
She said she “loves to practice as a doctor.” However, when the director of the medical institute where she had practiced medicine years earlier, asked her to return after Pietro’s death, she did not.
“I realized that there are many doctors in the world,” she said, “and they can take care of patients in a wonderful way — still better than me. But, at present, there is only one Gianna Emanuela, teaching about a saint. … When I realized I could do some good in this way, … I thank the Lord for this gift.”
Gianna Emanuela finds great joy in her present mission with the St. Gianna Foundation, which was her father’s before her.
“I pray every day to the Lord, to the Virgin Mary,” she said, “for me to be worthy. … To be less unworthy of my saint mom and of my holy dad, too.”
Gianna Emanuela prays for others every day as well. She receives countless requests for prayers and hears of many graces received through the intercession of her “saint Mom.” These include:
- Married couples who conceive a child after many years of infertility and/or many miscarriages. She said these are the most frequent graces she hears about;
- Then there are the difficult pregnancies and difficult deliveries “with a positive outcome, thanks to the prayers of Mom”;
- Many stories of recovery from illness;
- Finally, requests for “spiritual favors” which she feels are “very important” requests that come because of the changes in society and the stresses placed on families.
For example, of the many who request prayers, Gianna Emanuela finds herself most saddened by the pain of parents —with children who have left the church and who don’t have their own children baptized — who don’t understand what they themselves might have done wrong.
“What is very hard for me is to find the right words when I speak with this person,” Gianna Emanuela said. “I say, ‘I am sure that you did your best and I think what you did will always remain in the heart of your son or daughter. They never forget. I pray that the grace of God and the Holy Spirit can bring about what you communicated.’”
She also tells these parents “that now they have to trust in the Lord. They cannot control the life of their children, but to love them and pray to the Lord to take care of their family.”
As she travels the world, Dr. Gianna Emanuela Molla seeks to spread hope and encourage faith and, most of all, share the message she learned from her mother and her father: Trust God, have a deep respect for every human being, and live the spirit of service.
This final message is one she learned most fully when she was a practicing physician, caring for the elderly. When you do so, she said, “You receive more than you give.”