Many saints are called by God to found religious congregations. Their goals are well determined and always adapted to the special needs of their times. Ordinarily, God prepares these saints in a special period of novitiate in which He himself is the Teacher. They, knowing themselves in humility to be instruments in the hands of God, perform with absolute fidelity, the predetermined plan of his will.
Mother Catherine Troiani of St. Rose of Viterbo was not called from the world to found a missionary institute immediately, but had in the course of events, three distinctive vocations: Religious, Missionary, and Foundress. She was born in Giuliano, a suburb of Rome, on January 9, 1813. She was baptized the same day and given the name Costanza. When only six years old, her mother died tragically at home. Costanza was entrusted to the loving care of the Nuns of St. Clare of Charity in Ferentino. With lively intelligence, a sensible heart, docility in accepting the workings of grace and a decisive will, the young girl quickly formed a strong and serene character orientated towards God.
In the hands of God she was an active instrument. At an early age she developed a profound spirit of mortification. Fervent prayer nourished by the Eucharist, and an assiduous study of the lives of saints and of the annals of the missions, lighted and nourished in her heart the flame of the love of God and of neighbor.
At the age of fifteen, Costanza felt even stronger the attraction to religious life and asked to be accepted as a sister in the same Monastery of Ferentino. Her vocation to the cloister matured in the light of a distinctive divine call and was assisted by her prompt and generous response. Her perseverance was shown in the years following her profession when she, Sr. Mary Catherine of St. Rose of Viterbo, became the secretary of the monastery. She prayed and struggled along with Mother Abbess to conserve the rule and the small congregation that was trying to form a stricter cloistered life. Sr. Catherine lived in the Monastery of Ferentino until the age of forty-six. There she was esteemed by all for her constant practice of the religious virtues. However, Our Lord was heightening ever more the flame of zeal in her heart that consumed her. This allowed her thoughts to wander outside the limits of the cloister and to follow the extension of the Church into the world. In this way, He prepared her for her second vocation, that of a missionary.
Sr. M. Catherine felt stronger than ever the attraction to missionary life, and when the monastery decided to accept a mission in Egypt, she responded as if she had always had a vocation to work in direct contact with souls who needed it the most. The instrument used by our Lord to bring the faith of Christ to the land of the Pharaohs was Father Joseph Modena, confessor at the Monastery of Ferentino. After spending some time in Alexandria, he learned from Monsignor Guasco, the Apostolic Delegate, that one of the greatest problems in Egypt then was the lack of religious dedicated to educating and instructing the young. He invited any religious who truly wanted to dedicate themselves to such a noble task.
On his return from Egypt in 1851, Father Joseph spoke of this proposition in all the monasteries. The Monastery of Ferentino accepted the offer. Since the works of God must be built on a solid foundation to have a stable and lasting life, several years had passed between the proposition and the actuality of it happening. For Sr. Catherine, these years were full of fervent prayer and efficacious work. Then, with the help of her cousin, Monsignor Bovieri, they acquired the first houses in Egypt.
After obtaining the authorization from the Minister General of the Friars Minor, the Custody of the Holy land, the Bishop of Ferentino, and of the Propagation of the Faith, as well as having to overcome the inevitable internal difficulties, Mother Catherine, who was virtually the heart of this expedition, left from Civitavecchia for Egypt together with the Abbess and four other sisters. They reached Malta only to hear the news of the death of Monsignor Guasco.
It was the evangelical strength of the Servant of God that helped them overcome their fears. The young missionaries, trusting greatly in Divine assistance, landed in Cairo on September 14, 1859. There the Franciscan friars who, following the example of St. Francis, came carrying lighted torches and singing songs welcomed them. After giving thanks to God, they accompanied the sisters to a poorhouse prepared with fraternal love. Here they opened a boarding house for girls and a school for children of any religion or nationality. The sisters set to work right away in gathering children, in teaching and caring for the sick.
After some time and much effort, they succeeded to learn the Arabic language. Mother Catherine took on the weight of much of these responsibilities since the Abbess was in poor health. At the same time, Father John Battista and Father Biagio Verri were apostles of anti-slavery among the Egyptian people. As soon as they heard of the new institute in Clot-Bey, Cairo, they proposed to make it the center of their work. Mother Cathenne accepted joyously the delicate task of ransoming abandoned children, the greater part of whom finding their way to heaven.
After a while, the old house of Clot-Bey became insufficient to handle such apostolic activity. Expansion was an urgent necessity. Mother Catherine, who was elected abbess during the chapter of 1863, requested an audience with the Vicar of Egypt. From him she succeeded to obtain a donation of land and a yearly income of grain. With the expansion came also the need for more religious; but in 1865, the Monastery of Ferentino openly renounced the mission in Egypt. It was at this point that Mother Catherine reached the third aspect of her vocation, that of foundress. She was faced with the inevitable alternative to either close the mission that was just beginning to flourish, or detach themselves from Ferentino. She was not unprepared for this because God had readied her for the new task.
Her first preoccupation was to give to the newborn institute a solid foundation. On November 10, 1868, she received the full approval of his Holiness Pope Pius IX. She also received the decree that canonically erected the Religious Institute of the Third Order Regular of St. Francis, the community of the Sisters of Cairo under the new title of Franciscan Missionaries of Egypt. Immediately after the canonical approval was given, Mother Catherine and nine sisters made their religious professions according to the new rule. Nine aspirants also received the religious habit. From that moment until the day of her death, the venerated foundress had but one desire: to form and instill in her spiritual daughters an intense love for the interior life to enable them to work courageously to acquire souls for Christ.
Under the direct guidance of Mother Cathenne various homes were opened. Among these were schools in Cairo, Mansura, Damiata (Egypt); Malta; Milan (Italy), and Jerusalem. Mother Catherine visited most of these homes passing from one to another. Her work was unending. On Apnl 10, 1887, during the Solemnity of Easter, after having participated in all the functions of Holy Week, Mother Catherine was forced to bed by weakness caused by a fever. Every effort was made to help her overcome the fever, but her death was now imminent.
On May 6, 1887, having received the holy Viaticum and surrounded by Sisters and orphans who were crying, Mother Cathenne heard the voice of her Spouse calling her name and happily followed Him. She had faithfully fulfilled the mission entrusted to her by the Lord and was now beginning another one in heaven. Her funeral had the appearance of a real triumph. It was open to all, Christians, Turks, Moslems, etc. There was heard only the unanimous cry: "The 'Mother of the Poor'; the 'White Mother' is dead!" The effects of her valid protection and intercession with God were quickly felt. A shower of graces fell upon the Institute she founded and upon all those who invoked her with faith. The Congregation founded by Mother Catherine has now planted itself on five continents. Under the new title of Franciscan Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, the Sisters cooperate with and in the Church to spread the kingdom of God. They fulfill their ministries in orphanages, schools, clinics, hospitals, pastoral care, parish work, and wherever the needs of God's people are. The secret of the Sisters' vitality is found in the ardent devotion left by their foundress, Mother Catherine: devotion to the Eucharistic Jesus which is the inexhaustible source of spiritual energy; devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, a secure and maternal guide; and devotion to St. Joseph, the caring and provident guardian. This was the treasure which the foundress called her "Holy Threesome", and which from heaven she passes on to her spiritual daughters.
Blessed Catherine's charism, "To live the Gospel of Jesus Christ, our Crucified Spouse, naked and abandoned on the cross, and in Him to be sent for the conversion of people beyond the seas," is alive in the Congregation she founded.