St Gabriel was born in Assisi, Italy on March 1, 1838 from a privileged family background. He was extremely handsome, sociable with a fantastic charisma and dress code. He attended many social functions and as well as being a great dancer had personality traits that women found irresistible. Not surprisingly he found himself engaged to two women at the same time.
But St Gabriel, although satiated with world values and earthly comforts had only one desire which was to dedicate his life to God and become a Passionist monk. To live an evangelical life and promote the love of God revealed in the Passion of Jesus.
Despite disbelief and resistance, especially from His father, St Gabriel entered the Passionist congregation. During his life in the monastery he was known for his great devotion to the sorrows of the Virgin Mary.
St Gabriel was never short of courage. One day he single handed stood up to a group of soldiers who were trying to rape a young girl. Not only did he save her but he marched them out of the village and told them never to return.
He died from tuberculosis at the age of 23 in Isola del Gran Sasso, in the province of Teramo. He was canonized by Pope Benedict XV in 1920.
Gemma’s friendship with St Gabriel:
At age 16 Gemma was diagnosed with tuberculosis of the spine (which later was discovered to be spinal meningitis). She suffered from violent pains in her back with severe headaches. Her hair fell out and she became paralysed with advanced abscesses in her lumbar region.
Many people came to help her. One was Signora Martinucci who lent her a book on the Life of St Gabriel Possenti. As the world was becoming filled with the fame of His miracles it was intended that Gemma pray for a cure through the intercession of St Gabriel.
But initially Gemma took little interest as Her main concern was to be more like Her Crucified Spouse, Our Lord Jesus Christ. But as her suffering continued the enemy of souls chose that moment as an opportunity to torment her even more. She was told to listen to the evil one and obey his commands. In doing so she would be totally healed and made well. The devil also promised greater pleasures and treasures and tried to fill her mind with wicked suggestions.
At the height of the struggle when, according to herself, she was at the point of yielding she remembered St Gabriel and the power he had with God. She cried out for St Gabriel, but the devil only increased his assaults. Not giving up and making the sign of the cross Gemma again invoked St Gabriel and a deep peace came upon her. The devil left her alone. From that point onwards Gemma knew that she had been saved and her soul was at peace.
Gemma then picked up the book of St Gabriel’s autobiography and read it repeatedly. She developed a great devotion towards St Gabriel and slept every night with his picture underneath her pillow.
The time came when Gemma had to return the book to Signora Martinucci. She was extremely upset to have to part with it. Shortly after St Gabriel appeared to her in His Passionist Habit. He Said “Be good and I shall come back to see you”.
A great sense of calm came over Gemma. She experienced a great joy within her soul. Not only did she want to live for Jesus but she wanted to be bound to Him by new ties that would never be broken. As she was experiencing a strange sense of well being St Gabriel again appeared to her and said ‘Gemma, ‘take of your own free-will a vow to become a religious but add nothing further.’
Gemma did not understand what these words meant and asked why her vow was to be limited. The Saint did not reply except to say: ‘Sorella mia’ (my sister).
A few weeks passed and Gemma’s health had deteriorated even further. A tumour on her head had appeared causing violent spasmodic pains. The doctors had decided that nothing could be done for her.
Gemma’s confessor, Monsignor Volpi, and sister Julia Sestini suggested that she should make a novena to St Margaret Mary Alacoque. Gemma started the Novena on Friday 23rd February. It was to last 9 days and finish on Sunday 1st March.
As Gemma started to recite the Novena she felt a hand placed upon her forehead. A voice then began to say the Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory be to the Father, nine times. Gemma didn’t know what to say as she was too weak with pain. The voice then asked her: “Do you wish to be cured?” “It is all the same to me,” Gemma replied. “Yes,” he continued, ” you will be cured. Pray with faith to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Every evening until the end of the novena I shall come and we shall pray together to the Sacred Heart.” “And what about Blessed Margaret Mary?” Gemma asked. “Add the Glory be to the Father three times in her honour.”
This she did for nine evenings in succession.
The same person (it was St. Gabriel) came every evening and placed his hand on her forehead as before. They recited together the Our Father to the Sacred Heart, and then he made her add the Glory be to the Father in honour of Blessed Margaret Mary.
The morning after the last day of the Novena Gemma received Holy Communion. This is her own account of what happened:
‘0 what happy moments I spent with Jesus! He said to me: “Gemma, do you wish to be cured?” I was so overcome with emotion that I could not speak. Poor Jesus! The grace was granted; I was cured. That morning I wept with Jesus, and Jesus, always good, always tender, was saying: “I shall always be with you, my daughter. I am thy father,” and, pointing to Mary the Mother of Sorrows, ” she will be your mother. A father’s help will never be wanting to whoever puts himself in My hands. Although I have taken away from you every support and consolation on earth, nothing will ever be wanting to you.” [Autobiography, pp. 50-52]
Gemma was indeed cured.
‘Two hours later I got up,’ she tells us. ‘All at home were weeping for joy. I was pleased, not because I had regained my health, but because Jesus had chosen me for His daughter. And, indeed, before leaving me that morning He had said very clearly to my heart:
“To the grace I have given you this morning others greater will be added.”
Now cured Gemma kept her promise to God which was to make a Holy Hour every Thursday evening. This was where Gemma would go on to receive even greater graces.
But the assaults of the enemy would also come even more frequent with diabolical attacks and evil suggestions. But God had given Gemma St Gabriel who appeared to her and said:
‘If the temptation fills your heart with fear, and your soul is on the point of yielding to the enemy, have recourse to me, and then you can rest assured of victory.’
On other occasions he appeared to her, and placing his hand on her head, made her say three times: ‘ From the snares of the Devil, deliver us, 0 Lord!’ And she was freed.
In 1899, in preparation for the opening of a new century, Pope Leo XIII ordered that missions of the passionists should be given in every city throughout Italy. The Passionist Fathers were chosen for Lucca. They delivered a course of sermons on the Sacred Heart at the Cathedral of St. Martin at which Gemma decided to attend. To her amazement Gemma saw that the passionist ministers were clad exactly as she had seen St. Gabriel dressed.
Here is her own account of what happened:
‘We had come to the last day of the holy mission. All the people were gathered in the church for the General Communion. I also was taking part with the others, and Jesus, Who was pleased, it seems, made Himself clearly felt in my soul, and asked : ” Gemma, do you like that habit with which the priest is clothed? ” And He indicated a Passionist in my vicinity. It was not necessary for me to answer Jesus in words, for my heart was speaking with its palpitations.-” Would you also like to be clothed in a habit like that?” Jesus added.- “Mio Dio,” I exclaimed.
“Yes,” Jesus continued, “you will be a daughter of My Passion, and a favourite daughter.”
From that time all Gemma’s thoughts of being a nun were directed towards the Congregation of Passionists founded by St. Paul of the Cross. Gemma did not lose time in making formal application to be admitted into the Passionist Convent at Corneto (to-day called Tarquinia). But she was refused and the refusal letter was very harsh and humiliating. Although upset, Gemma persisted but was continually turned down. Not giving up hope Gemma made a prophesy to her Aunt Elisa:
‘Listen, Aunt! Alive, they do not want me, but after my death they will be glad to have me.’
At this time there was talk of a foundation of the Passionist nuns being made at Lucca which gave Gemma new hopes. Here is her account:
‘One day I heard that it was intended to found a Convent of the Passionist nuns here in Lucca, and it struck me that I ought to ask Confrater Gabriel about the matter. It seemed to me that I saw him and asked him: “Will the foundation be made?” He answered me : ” Sister mine, not for two years, but nevertheless I assure you that the Convent will be opened.” “But shall I become a Passionist ? ” He answered: “Sister mine, yes, you will be a Passionist.” “But where?” I asked him. ” Oh, let me go to Corneto?” “But why do you want to go so far away? ” he asked. “In order to forget everybody and to be forgotten by all.” He did not reply, but blessed me and went away.
The words of St. Gabriel came true. The foundation of the passionist nuns in Lucca was established 2 years after Gemma’s death. The convent exists today known as the sanctuary of St. Gemma where her remains are contained in the main alter.
For the above reasons, therefore, the sons and daughters of St. Paul of the Cross have always considered Blessed Gemma as a member of their Congregation.
Her prophecy has been fulfilled:
“The Passionist nuns would not accept me; but I want to be one of them, and shall be with them when I am dead .. “