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6 Heroic nuns who fought the Ebola pandemic and are on their way to sainthood


Courtesy of Le Suore delle Poverelle dell'Istituto Palazzolo

Larry Peterson - published on 03/23/21

One said, “Stay in joy because love asks for love.” She died just before turning 48.

The Sisters of the Poor, Palazzolo Institute, was founded in Bergamo, Italy, in 1869, by Blessed Luigi Maria Palazzolo. Pontifical recognition was given to the order in 1912. Members of the Order take vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience.  They dedicate their lives in service to the poor and orphaned children. Most are experienced nurses. The sisters serve in some of the world’s most deprived areas.

The Sisters of the Poor began their service outside of Italy after World War II. Their first mission country was China, but that was put on hold after the Communist revolution. They then turned their attention to Africa and, in 1951, went to what was then the Belgian Congo (since then, it has been known as Zaire, and today it is the Democratic Republic of the Congo).

The sisters managed to build a hospital in Kikwit. By 1995 it had grown to have a main building with 11 pavilions. They treated all types of diseases and had 450 beds. The demand was so great most of the time, patients had to sleep two, sometimes three, to a bed. The Sisters from Italy numbered 58 and 14 were located in Kikwit before the epidemic struck. More than 400 workers and eight doctors made up the staff.

Today the Sisters of the Poor, Palazzolo Institute, have houses in Peru, Switzerland, Brazil, Italy, the Republic of the Congo, Ivory Coast, Malawi, and Kenya. The Mother House is in Bergamo, Italy, and close to 1,000 sisters serve in 103 communities. 

Heroic lives

Pope Francis issued declarations of Heroic Virtue for three of the sisters on February 20 and another on March 21, all six died victims of ebola. (Sisters of the Poor.” should not be confused with the Little Sisters of the Poor” founded by St. Jeanne Jugan in 1839).

Courtesy of Le Suore delle Poverelle dell'Istituto Palazzolo

Sister Floralba Rondi was the chief nurse in the operating room at the main hospital. She had been in the country since 1952, a period of more than 43 years. She was born in Pedrengo, Italy, on December 10, 1924. She had professed her final vows many years earlier.

Sister Floralba had returned to Kikwit in 1994 after working in Kinshasha for six years treating leprosy patients. As the Ebola virus took hold of her, she thought she was coming down with typhoid. She planned to return to Mosang to get back to work with the leprosy patients. But the disease took her first. She died on April 28, 1995. She was 71. 

Courtesy of Le Suore delle Poverelle dell'Istituto Palazzolo

Alessandra Ghilardi: another member of the Sisters of the Poor, was born in Bergamo, Italy, on April 21, 1931. On September 8, 1952, the birthday of the Blessed Mother, she accepted her religious habit and took the name, Sister Clarangela. She was sent to the Belgian Congo in 1959. Trained in obstetrics, she worked her entire ministry in Kikwit, Mossango, and the Tumikia Missions. Sister had spent the last 30 years of her life in Zaire (the Democratic Republic of the Congo). On April 29, 1995, she fell ill. They thought she had a hemorrhagic fever. She died on May 6. Two days later, they discovered it was from Ebola. 


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Courtesy of Le Suore delle Poverelle dell'Istituto Palazzolo

Dinarosa Belleri: Born as Teresina, she entered the Sisters of the Poor of the Palazzolo Institute when she was 21 years old. Her first assignment was at a marine hospital in Cagliari. For the next 17 years, she served in the Mosango Hospital Center. In 1983, she was transferred to Kikwit, where she cared for lepers, tuberculosis victims, and every other illness or injury imaginable. As the Ebola virus took hold of the area, Sister Dinarosa remained in her post. She was determined that she was supposed to be there, just as Blessed Luigi Maria Palazzolo had taught. She worked until it was impossible to stand. She died from Ebola on May 14, 1995.

More Heroism

On March 21, 2021, Pope Francis declared three more Sisters of the Poor as women of “Heroic Virtue.” They also were present in the Congo during the Ebola epidemic and died while assisting the sick.

Courtesy of Le Suore delle Poverelle dell'Istituto Palazzolo

Celeste Ossoli knew from an early age that she wanted to serve God. She had confided to her mother about her vocation.  Her mom helped her keep the ‘secret’; they both knew that Celeste’s father would disapprove. When Celeste turned 17, she told her father she wanted to become a nun. Her father got angry and slapped her so hard that a tooth was knocked out, and she fell to the ground. After a time, he relented and gave his daughter his permission. She joined the Sisters of the Poor on October 5, 1953. From then on, she was known as Sister Annalvira.

Sister Annalvira took her vows at the age of 20 and was sent to the Belgian Congo on November 1, 1961. Sister suffered from pulmonary tuberculosis. She fought hard to recover and managed to get into obstetrics school in Rome. She finished and returned to Africa. She worked in the Congo and delivered 30 to 40 babies a day. She was honored with a nickname: They called her the “woman of life.”

Sister Annalvira became the Provincial Superior of Africa. The position required her to travel many places to visit the missionary communities. When Ebola struck, her dear friend, Sister Floralba, was stricken. Sister Annalvira immediately traveled by jeep over 500 km (310 miles) to be with her. Sister Floralba died on April 28, 1995. Sister Annalvira, unable to escape the clutches of Ebola, died on May 23, 1995.

Courtesy of Le Suore delle Poverelle dell'Istituto Palazzolo

Maria Rosa Zorza was born in Palosco, Italy, on October 9, 1943. She was the youngest of seven children, and her mom died when she was only two. She was raised by her maternal grandmother. Maria felt called by God at an early age and entered the Congregation of the Sisters of the Poor on September 1, 1966. She took the name of Sister Vitarosa. She was sent to Milan, where she studied to be a nurse specializing in geriatrics. However, her deepest wishes were to help take care of the poor children in Africa. She never stopped trying, and finally, on October 20, 1982, she was sent to Kikwit to work in the civil hospital.   

When Ebola hit, Sister Vitarosa did not seem sick like the others. She was hurrying about doing her best to help the suffering. Asked if she was afraid, she answered, “Afraid of what?” Then she would sing a song in the language of Kinshasa, “If in the church Jesus Christ calls you, accept to serve Him with all your heart.”     

Sister Vitarosa Zorsa died from Ebola on May 28, 1995.

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Courtesy of Le Suore delle Poverelle dell'Istituto Palazzolo

Anna Sortiwas born on June 15, 1947, in Bergamo, Italy. She was the youngest of 13 children, of whom only seven survived. Her mom and dad died a year apart in 1956 and 1957. The losses caused her much grief, and she fell away from the faith. She began to get in trouble as a teenager, but then she took charge of her life due to the influence of the Sisters of the Poor.

At the age of 19, Anna entered the convent. She took the name of Sister Danielangela and took her temporary vows on September 29, 1968. She professed her perpetual vows in 1974.She was then sent to Milan to study nursing.

Sister Danielangela Sorti often thought that she might have a short life.In a letter she wrote on March 23, 1995, she said, “Time passes quickly for everyone, and we must be prepared because we do not know the hour or the day when the Lord can call us.” She finished by writing, “Stay in joy because love asks for love.” 

Sister was working in Tumikia but volunteered to go to Mosango to help with the sick there. She contracted Ebola her first night and was transferred to Kikwit. She died there on May 11, 1995. She was one month shy of her 48th birthday.

We ask these six Venerables to pray for us all.


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