The WWI-era pope called on her to help spread the Gospel.
Armida Barelli was born December 1, 1882, in Milan, Italy. Her father, Napoleon Barelli, was a successful dry goods dealer and her mom, Savina Candiani, managed the household. Savina had six children to care for, and it was no easy task. Armida had two brothers, Gino and Fausto, and three sisters, Maria, Gemma, and Vittoria. Mom and Dad were somewhat indifferent toward religion, so teaching the Catholic faith was not a priority in the home. The kids would have to learn about that in school.
Armida’s early education was supervised by the Ursuline Nuns. The nuns were good at transmitting the faith. (This writer was taught by Ursulines for eight years and speaks from experience.) After finishing her primary school education, Armida was sent to a boarding school in Menzingen, Switzerland, where she was put under the protection of the Franciscan Sisters of the Holy Cross.
Called to serve
She attended school there from 1895 through 1900, and it was during this time she felt the calling to religious life. She developed a deep desire to get closer to God, wanting to acquire a real relationship with Him and to consecrate herself to doing His work. She would not be deterred.
From 1900 through 1908, there were many distractions to Armida’s religious hopes. Her mom and dad kept presenting her with marriage proposals from interested suitors. Finally, she informed her mom and dad that her life would not be that of a wife and mother. Instead, she was going to devote her life to God by serving the poor and the orphaned.
Armida had been strong-willed and determined from an early age. Her resolve was obvious as she helped out with the family business and still volunteered to help the poor and orphaned. Her parents gave her their blessing to pursue her vocation. It was shortly afterward that she met the Franciscan priest Father Agostino Gemelli.
Father Gemelli was a priest, a physician, and a psychologist. He would become the Rector of Catholic University of the Sacred Heart located in Milan. Those things were still in his future. But Father Gemelli was a charismatic person. His love of Jesus combined with his example as a Franciscan inspired Armida greatly. He would introduce her to the secular Franciscan Order and the apostolic work she could do as a member. Armida professed her vows in 1910, becoming a Third Order Franciscan.
Talents at work
During World War I, Armida was a translator of German articles. This task brought her to the attention of Andrea Cardinal Ferrari, the archbishop of Milan. He immediately recognized her organizational skills, her intelligence, and her high standards of morality. He asked her to come to see him.
Armida met with the archbishop on February 17, 1918. He selected her as the Vice-President for Social Action of the Milan Committee of Catholic Women. She was also named the administrator of the Life and Thought publication.
Soon after their meeting, Cardinal Ferrari referred her to Pope Benedict XV as a candidate for the national presidency of Catholic Action. The Holy Father concurred and met with Armida (known to many as Ida) on September 28, 1918. He appointed her as president of the National Girls Youth of Catholic Action. She held this position for the next 28 years.
The accomplishments of Armida are many. She established the Third Order Franciscan Sisters of the Social Kingship of the Sacred Heart in 1919. She founded the Institute for Religious Vocations in 1920. Just keeping “busy,” in 1921, at the request of Pope Benedict XV, she established the Society of Friends of the Catholic University. And together with Father Agostino Gemelli, OFM, she co-founded the Secular Institute of the Missionaries of the Kingship of Christ, which today has more than 2,200 members in more than 30 countries around the world.
In 1949, Ida became ill with bulbar palsy, which would lead to her death. This disease attacks the cranial nerves and causes weaknesses to develop in various places in the body. Armida wrote while she was ill, “I accept death, whatever the Lord wills, in full compliance with the divine will.”
Armida (Ida) Barelli died on August 15, 1952. Her remains are buried in the crypt of the chapel of the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan.
On Saturday, February 20, 2021, Pope Francis announced the beatification of Venerable Armida Barelli. The date has not been set.