Armida Barelli's China
by Gerolamo Fazzini

The co-founder of Milan’s Catholic University of the Sacred Heart will be beatified on 30 April. She was very involved in evangelisation, especially in China, where she played a role in the founding of the Franciscan Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, an important female religious congregation that is still active.


Milan (AsiaNews) - Armida Barelli (1892-1952) will be proclaimed Blessed in Milan on 30 April. A laywoman, she founded the Italian Catholic Women’s Youth (GFIC)[*] and was co-founder of the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart (UCSC[†]). An important but little-known aspect of her life was her ties with Catholics in China.

An article published in the PIME magazine Mondo e Missione helps rediscover her, focusing on the help she gave, from Italy, to Bishop Eugenio Massi, OFM, in northern Shanxi, in founding the Franciscan Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a female religious congregation that is still among the largest in China.

A small seed bore much fruit, particularly in the Diocese of Xi'an, from where the congregation sent nuns to many other parts of China.

“The missionary aspect in Armida Barelli’s life and work deserves the same attention as the other entities which she founded and led,” said Mgr Claudio Giuliodori, UCSC general ecclesiastical assistant and former bishop of Macerata (2007-2014), Matteo Ricci's diocese.

Born in Milan in 1882, Armida Barelli was sent to study in 1895 at the boarding school run by the Franciscan Sisters of the Holy Cross in Menzingen, German-speaking Switzerland where she earned a diploma in education and German.

In 1900, at 18, greeting her fellow graduates, she asked a thoughtful question: “What will become of us in 10 years? For me, I shall either be Sister Elisabetta, missionary in China, or mother of twelve children.”

Providence had other plans in store for her. Yet the anecdote is important for it underscores an apostolic tension that flourish within a few years.

“The idea of ​​China was already present in her youth,” Bishop Giuliodori notes. “When Benedict XV issued his apostolic letter Maximum Illud in 1919 to revive the missionary commitment of the universal Church, Barelli followed with a major initiative, namely the foundation of the Franciscan Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.”

Bishop Massi’s portrait of the first superior is interesting. “She is a 28-year-old young saint, Filomena Wang, daughter of a rich Mandarin. She spoke French well, knew how to draw, play music, sew, weave, knit, and embroider. She is endowed with a true spirit of apostolate and sacrifice, and is providential for the foundation, management and life of the charity.

“She never worries about the congregation’s poverty; on the contrary, she encourages us by saying: ‘Don't worry, monsignor, at least in the beginning sacrifices must be made. We are all happy with this poverty, and we want to profess it not only with the spirit but with the facts.’”

“The foundress was Chinese, Mary Wang Wenqing, to whom Bishop Massi and Father Ding Wutiao, a Spanish Franciscan, gave strong support,” said Sister Judith Hu Xiaozhe, former superior general, speaking about the founding of her congregation.

She too acknowledges a special relationship of friendship between the congregation, Barelli and UCSC. “The Catholic University of the Sacred Heart has a long historical relationship with us, although it is a famous university while we only have a small institution.”

The Franciscan Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus also experienced the storm of the years of persecution after Mao’s seizure of power. From 1952 until 1980 the congregation was forcibly disbanded.

Eleven nuns were arrested and jailed, others returned to their homes, some ended up doing hard labour, several were publicly tried and endured physical punishment, “but they always remained faithful to God and the Church.”

When the situation began to gradually improve for the Church, the congregation re-emerged, and today the Sisters are involved in pastoral care, evangelisation, welfare and healthcare. Their presence is making its mark in the local Church and Chinese society.

“Due to new requests, in 2019 we renovated a small abandoned building at the Wen Qing Centre, turning it into an apostolate house, to commemorate the GFCI.

“We called it the Minda House, and in July 2021, we registered the Minda Social Work Service Centre in the Xincheng, a district in Xi'an. We named it in Armida’s honour.”

[*] Gioventù femminile cattolica italiana.

[†] Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore.