Italian religious established houses where addicts could reorient their lives through prayer, work, and community.
Mother Elvira Petrozzi, who founded the Cenacle Community in 1983 to minister to teen drug addicts, died on August 3 after a long illness. She was 86.
Mother Elvira passed away at the House of Formation of the Comunità Cenacolo, as the apostolate is known in Italian, in Saluzzo, Italy.
This year, from July 13-16, during an annual celebration called the Festival of Life, thousands of people, including young persons, parents, and friends belonging to the Cenacle Community, came from around the world to Saluzzo to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the founding of the apostolate. Many took the opportunity to bid Mother Elvira farewell, as it appeared she was nearing the end of her life.
One of them was Bishop Emeritus Robert J. Baker of Birmingham, Alabama, who was instrumental in bringing the Cenacle Community to the United States in 1993. In a statement Friday, Bishop Baker said, “Cenacolo Community members in the United States are experiencing the loss of this special woman, who impacted greatly their lives, and helped them find health, healing, and happiness in Jesus Christ through her Cenacolo communities in Florida and Alabama.”
Bishop Baker said that during the Festival of Life in Saluzzo, he “was fortunate to offer a prayer at Mother Elvira Petrozzi’s bedside.”
“She has reminded her Cenacolo family members that ‘life does not die’ and that we should not mourn, but rejoice when God calls her to eternity,” the bishop said. “Like the friends of St. Philip Neri who sang ‘paradiso’ when he died, Mother Elvira’s close community members sang the same way on her death because they believe she is now embraced by her Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and all the angels and saints in heaven.”
Albino Argano, director of Comunità Cenacolo America and one of the men who established the first community in St. Augustine, Florida, said Friday that Mother Elvira always encouraged him and reminded him “that life is precious and that life needs to be lived fully … to never be afraid to do God’s will, and to always trust in Him. Because of this I can say that in all these years I can see that our community has kept on going even through so many difficulties because good always prevails.”
At the Vatican on July 16, Pope Francis spoke about Mother Elvira and her community. “I send my heartfelt greeting to the Cenacolo Community, which has been a place of hospitality and human promotion for 40 years,” he said following his Angelus address. “I bless Mother Elvira, the Bishop of Saluzzo, and all the fraternity and friends. What you do is good, and it is good that you exist! Thank you!”
Her father was often drunk …
Born Rita Agnese Petrozzi in Sora, Italy, on January 21, 1937, Mother Elvira was the fourth of seven children. In the wake of the Second World War, the family experienced marginalization and poverty. Rita’s father was often drunk and unemployed, and her mother, a nurse, had to work outside the home to support the family. Rita spent much of her time helping her to care for the other children. The experience of dealing with an alcoholic father gave Elvira insights that she could call upon later in life in helping drug addicts.
The family was so poor that Rita could not afford a pair of shoes, and was often unable to go to church on Sundays. But one day, when she did go, at the age of 12, she stood before a Lourdes grotto and felt a special union with Mary. “Tell Jesus to call me!” she prayed to the Madonna.
And call he did. At the age of 19, although Elvira was dating and had visions of starting a large family, she felt a strong calling to dedicate her life to God and serve the poor. She left her boyfriend and informed her family of her decision to enter the convent. On March 8, 1956, she took a train to Borgaro Torinese, where she entered the Sisters of Charity of St. Joan Antida Thouret, taking the name Sister Elvira.
She spent about 28 years with the community, working in a hospital kitchen located in Turin or teaching in a kindergarten in Saluzzo.
Call within a call
A biography provided by the Cenacle Community described Sister Elvira as a joyful nun, but said that at a certain point, “a strong desire arises within her, ‘like a fire,’ an inner drive increasingly compelling her to dedicate herself to the youth. During prayer before the Eucharist, she feels as if she can hear their ‘cries’ of pain.”
“I saw them ‘without a shepherd,’ without points of reference, at a loss, with so much wealth, money in their pockets, cars, culture, with abundant material possessions, and yet sad and dead in their hearts,” the nun is quoted as saying.
After seven years of persistent requests, Sister Elvira was finally given permission from her superiors to embark on a new path. She obtained an abandoned, run-down villa from the Municipality of Saluzzo, a town in the province of Cuneo (Piedmont), and on July 16, 1983, the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Mother Elvira, as she came to be known, began her new endeavor. She decided to call the community after the name of the “Upper Room,” the Cenacle, where Jesus had the Last Supper with his disciples.
“Mother Elvira’s emphasis was on the Eucharist and devotion to the Blessed Mother as a source of healing,” Bishop Baker of Birmingham told the National Catholic Register in 2018.
As Mother Elvira and her collaborators began to fix up the abandoned villa in Saluzzo, young men addicted to drugs began seeking refuge there. Elvira tried to learn from them what they needed in order to change their lives. For one thing, she could see that they were hungry for God. She also felt they needed a life structured around work, prayer, and fraternal living.
“I told them: Here, no one pays for you,” she recalled. “You must regain your life through sweat, discovering that within you lies the strength and dignity for a new life.”
New houses opened, including, in the summer of 1986, in Medjugorje, the site in Bosnia and Herzegovina of alleged apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The presence of many international pilgrims there led to the Cenacle Community becoming known worldwide.
In 1993, a house for young women was opened. The community soon opened up to abandoned and marginalized children and adolescents, and in January 1996, Mother Elvira sent the first group of missionary men and women to Brazil.
In time, “Cenacolo families” were formed – men and women who felt the call to consecrate themselves in the Community.
Altogether, there are 72 houses in 20 countries of the world, including four in the US. Houses also exist in Austria, Croatia, France, England, Ireland, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain, Argentina, Costa Rica, Brazil, Mexico, Peru, Paraguay, Liberia, and the Philippines.
The community received diocesan canonical approval in 1998, and the Vatican recognized it as an international association of the faithful in 2009.
“The members of the Community pursue their own personal sanctification by living a strongly Eucharistic and Marian spirituality, in trusting and total abandonment to Divine Providence,” according to the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life. “They are committed to the free acceptance of and service towards those who, especially because of drugs and other addictions, live a situation of existential loss.”
Mother Elvira often commented, “We are the first witnesses of God’s miracle that was never thought of or planned at a table. It surpasses us and surprises us for which we are partakers by grace.”
She spent the last years of her life in the community’s House of Formation, assisted by her sisters. Throughout her long illness, she often urged her community not to be sad when the day of her passing came.
“When they say: ‘Elvira is dead!’ you must sing, dance, celebrate … because I am alive! Woe to you if you say: ‘Poor her …. No, not at all ‘poor her’! I will go on calmly and sing, I’m already singing! Something magnificent will open wide before me … life doesn’t die!”