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Meet the First ‘Working-Mom’ Saint

Who was Saint Gianna Beretta Molla? Find out more about her life here.
(Photo courtesy of the Saint Gianna School of Health Sciences at the University of Mary)

“I would not be here if I was not loved so much,” said Dr. Gianna Emanuela Molla at a 2017 luncheon. It’s true of all of us, but in an especially direct way for this woman because her mother and namesake, St. Gianna Berretta, gave her life to save her daughter’s. 

St. Gianna’s life, as well as her death, reflected the love she had for her children, her family, and the most vulnerable in society.

St. Gianna Berretta Molla was born on October 4, 1922 to Alberto and Marie Beretta in Northern Italy. She was the 10th of 13 children. Her parents were devout Catholics and saw educating their children’s minds and characters as doing God’s work. The parents had a special devotion to St. Francis’ life of simplicity, service to the poor, and love of the Gospel. They took their children to daily Mass and instilled early on in Gianna and her siblings a love for serving others.

At 15, Gianna had a life-changing experience while attending a retreat given by a Jesuit priest who led them through St. Ignatius of Loyola’s spiritual exercises. She learned to talk with God on a deeply personal and intimate level. She cites this event as the start of her deep prayer life and her reliance on God’s grace and mercy.

The retreat emphasized offering everything you do to God: joy and suffering, work and studies. Gianna embraced this view of living. She saw giving everything to God as a way to trust and accept God’s will and providing care in her life. After the retreat, she began to offer her studies and her work to God.

During college, Gianna continued developing her spiritual life and offering her work to God. She was active in Catholic Action, an organization for young people to deepen their spiritual lives and to perform acts of charity, in particular serving the poor and the sick. Catholic Action’s motto is “prayer, action, sacrifice” — one that Gianna lived out for the rest of her life.

Gianna felt her vocation was to be a doctor. She reflected, “Physicians have opportunities that a priest does not have, for our mission does not end when medicine is no longer of help. There still remains the soul that must be brought to God.”

She earned her medical degree in 1949 and chose to specialize in pediatrics. One rule she lived by was to “never forget the patient’s soul.” She gave special attention to those living in poverty, often giving her patients food and money for medicine as opposed to taking a payment from them. 

Besides being a doctor, she felt called to marriage and motherhood. She married Pietro Molla in 1955. Her vocation to family brought much physical suffering, however: Each of her first three pregnancies was extremely difficult, with sickness and complications. Her first child was born 25 days late, and her other two children were each born 10 days after their due dates. Despite her suffering, she continued to surrender her life to God, trusting in His providence: “The secret of happiness is to live moment by moment and to thank God for all that He, in His goodness, sends to us day after day.”

St. Gianna continued to work as a doctor while also making time for her children and husband. Like her own parents, she paid special attention to the spiritual development of her kids. 

In 1962, two months into her fourth pregnancy, she was in severe pain, and her doctor discovered a fibroma — a type of tumor — in her uterus that required surgery. She was presented with three options:

  1. The surest method to save her own life would be to have a hysterectomy, which would also end the child’s life. According to the “principal of double-effect,” this option would be morally permissible because the action aims to save the mother’s life by removing cancer even though it has the undesired effect of killing the child.
  2. Her second option was to remove the tumor and the fetus. Although this could allow her to have children in the future, Gianna would avoid directly willing an abortion.
  3. The third option, and the most risky, was to have the tumor surgically removed and continue with a high-risk pregnancy. A surgery on the uterus during pregnancy has a high risk of bleeding. Even an initially successful surgery could cause problems later in the pregnancy if the scar opened up and started bleeding. 

As a doctor, she knew all the risks, and she knew that she could take the first, easier option in order to save her own life. But she chose the third option for the sake of her child. She said, “I have prayed so much in these days. With faith and hope I have entrusted myself to the Lord. I trust in God, yes; but now it is up to me to fulfill my duty as a mother. I renew to the Lord the offer of my life. I am ready for everything, to save my baby.” 

She carried the child to term, but after hours of labor, the doctors decided that the child must be delivered via cesarean-section. Gianna pleaded with the doctors: “If you must decide between me and the child, do not hesitate: choose the child — I insist on it. Save him.”

Although the child was born healthy, Gianna developed septic peritonitis, an infection of the abdomen that came on most likely as a result of the C-section. After suffering for seven days, she died. 

Her cause for canonization described her as “a model of a complete reality to this world prone to misconstrue and refute the right of life.” As both a mother and a doctor, she knew the reality of the life that was growing within her and was willing to put the needs of her unborn child above her own. She is a model and inspiration to any woman facing an unexpected or difficult pregnancy because she brought the love of God into her choice. “Love and sacrifice are closely linked, like the sun and the light. We cannot love without suffering and we cannot suffer without love.”

Although she may be best remembered for the heroic way she died, she lived her life in cooperation with God, in the everyday tasks of being a mother, wife, and doctor. She is the first “working mom saint,” whose heroic virtue was recognized as both a mother and professional.

St. Gianna is the patron saint of mothers, physicians, and preborn children. Her feast day is April 28th, the day she died.

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