NORTHFIELD - Days after the former St. Bernadette and St. Peter parishes formally came together, the Inaugural Mass at the new St. Gianna Beretta Molla Parish brought together families from both parishes, the Sisters of Mercy, the Knights of Columbus and Bishop Joseph Galante of the Diocese of Camden.
But the guest of honor came not from Northfield, or Pleasantville, or even southern New Jersey. Pierluigi Molla, of Milan, Italy, is a rarity among those alive today - because while every good Catholic boy likes to say his mother is a saint, Molla can say it literally.
"This is an honor," Molla said before the Saturday afternoon Mass, the first under the name of his mother, St. Gianna Beretta Molla.
The new parish, which encompasses Northfield and Pleasantville, is the second in the country and the third in the world to be named for St. Gianna - the others are in St. Louis and St. Gianna's native Italy - and her firstborn son carried the first processional banner to the altar.
There, he joined parishioners portraying the Molla family - Tyler Soto as a young Pierluigi, Kelsey Kern as his sister Mariolina and Angela Marie Timm as the baby Lauretta, who was carried by Andrea Cortelessa, portraying St. Gianna herself.
"She's really well-known in the U.S.," Molla said, "especially because she's a modern saint. She's related to the concept of life, which is deeply discussed in the U.S."
St. Gianna was born in Magenta, Italy, in October 1922. To give a sense of how contemporary she is compared with the ancient and medieval saints, St. Gianna, if alive, would be even younger than the host of last night's "Saturday Night Live," Betty White.
"She was a very modern woman," Bishop Galante said before the Mass. "She was a doctor. She had a career. She was a wife and mother. She was a woman who loved life. She loved to ski and mountain climb, and loved to go to the opera and the theatre."
In 1961, St. Gianna was diagnosed with uterine cancer. Instead of removing her uterus and ending her pregnancy, she endangered her own life by having only the tumor removed. According to the literature distrubuted by the parish, "A few days before the child was due, Gianna told her husband, ‘If you must decide between me and the child, do not hesitate: Choose the child. I insist on it. Choose the baby.'"
St. Gianna died April 28, 1962, a week after giving birth to her daughter, Gianna Emanuela - who, like her mother before her, became a doctor.
The significance of St. Gianna's choice in her rise to sainthood is no mystery - the website of the Philadelphia-based Society of Saint Gianna refers to her as "The Catholic Pro-Life Saint."
"She is a woman who says a great deal for our country today," Galante said, "to choose life, and bring new life into the world."
After St. Gianna was credited with the miracle of saving the life of a dying woman in Brazil in 1977, she was beatified in 1994, the first step on the path to sainthood. Following the birth in 2003 of a healthy baby girl to a woman who lost her amniotic fluid - and whose bishop prayed for the intervention of St. Gianna - a second miracle was proclaimed, and St. Gianna was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2004.
"It was a fantastic experience," Molla said, "because after a long period of the process of beatification and canonization, it's a transformation of pain to a great feeling of happiness. When you think I was only five years old when I lost my mother, (what I thought was) pain, now that I know she's a saint, was not really pain, but happiness."
Molla watched as Elia Negron, formerly of St. Peter's, and Marie Edwards, of St. Bernadette's, carried candles to the foot of the altar to light a larger "unity candle," symbolizing the end of their old parishes and the creation of the new.
The merger of the two parishes was not without its difficulties - St. Peter Church was a beloved, long-established gathering place for the community, while St. Bernadette had to welcome an influx of St. Peter parishioners used to Spanish-language services.
The altar on Saturday was flanked by banners honoring mothers on the day before Mother's Day, made from patches created by the parishioners of both parishes. Among the patches was one portraying the outline of an embryo and the words, "From creation to natural death," with another containing the flag of El Salvador encased in a heart.
Galante, who wore among his vestments a piece of fabric that was once part of St. Gianna's wedding gown, formally commended Rev.. Patrick Brady as the pastor of St. Gianna Beretta Molla parish, an announcment that was met with applause from the full house of parishioners - "I'm glad you approve," Galante commented - and spoke of how St. Gianna's life should serve as an inspiration.
"I think we're blessed and privileged to have this parish named after a thoroughly modern, a thoroughly holy, everyday, average woman," Galante said. "She didn't do anything extraordinary, she didn't work any miracles when she was alive. She was not what most of us think about what saints are. Saints aren't out there, real saints are in here," he said, gesturing to his heart.
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