St. Clelia Barbieri started the community at age 21, and her voice is still audibly heard while the community prays.
Born in 1847 in a small village near Bologna, Italy, Clelia Barbieri grew up in a poor family dedicated to God. Her parents made sure to give her a strong foundation in the faith, which prompted her at an early age to ask, “Mother, how can I become a saint?”
She spent her early life weaving, sewing or praying in the local parish church. On account of her many spiritual gifts, she was permitted to receive Holy Communion at age 11, during a time in the Church when most received the Eucharist for the first time when they were older.
The reception of Holy Communion proved to be a transforming event, and Clelia started to receive mystical experiences. In particular she felt exceptional suffering for her own sins and the sins of the world. For the rest of her life her spirituality was marked by a devotion to Our Lady of Sorrows and the Holy Cross.
Soon enough there burned a desire within her heart to serve the poor and most vulnerable of the community. While she was doing so a group of young ladies surrounded her and “elected Clelia as their leader and conceived the idea of a community devoted to an apostolic and contemplative way of life. This was to be a life of service which would spring from the Eucharist with daily Holy Communion and would ennoble itself with the teaching of catechism to the farmers and laborers of the area.” The community would later be called and recognized as the Little Sisters of Sorrows.
The little community set to work and helped the poor and marginalized of the area. Barbieri, however was to be called to her heavenly home soon thereafter. She died at age 23 and before her death said, “I’m leaving, but I’ll never abandon you. When in that alfalfa field next to the church there will be a new community house, I will no longer be with you … You will grow in number, and you will expand over plains and mountains to work in the vineyard of the Lord. The day will come when here at ‘Budrie’ many will arrive with carriages and horses … I’m going to Heaven and all those who will die in our community will enjoy eternal life.”
The community was saddened by the departure of their foundress, but soon discovered that she had a real spiritual presence with the sisters.
According to reports, “starting with the first anniversary of her death, Clelia Barbieri every day prays aloud with her sisters. [It has been] witnessed, over the decades, by thousands of people. Not just sisters … who hear the voice regularly when praying in church, but also by other people who have … among them, priests, bishops, cardinals, and even laity, doctors, lawyers, [and] unbelievers.”
One of the sisters confirms that, “it is true, every day when we pray in church, the voice of Saint Celia joins ours … It’s an incredible, disconcerting, but beautiful phenomenon. For us, listening to that voice is like feeling the caress of a mother and infusing a great joy.”
Clelia Barbieri was canonized by St. John Paul II in 1989, and her example of humility and faithfulness at a young age continues to inspire countless souls around the world.