Rosemary (Rosa Marie) Serio (1674-1726)
Born and given the name Romana in Ostuni in the diocese of Monopoli in southeast Italy on August 6, 1674, the Feast of the Lord’s Transfiguration. She was one of seven girls, and several boys. Her father Antonio Serio was a respected physician, and her mother, Francesca Spennati who came from a family of comfortable means was most known for her solid Christian way of life and was a daily communicant.
As a child, Romana would save most of her breakfast for poor girls from the neighborhood. Rosemary’s health as a young child deteriorated so that at times it seemed she was close to death. But she still insisted on accompanying her mother to daily Mass. If she was left at home, Romana would make such a scene that the only way they had of calming her down was to dress her in a mock religious habit.
In humility, she wished to perform the manual tasks usually assigned to the hired help. She swept floors, helped in the kitchen, brought in wood for the fireplace. Rather than lording it over the workers, she would assist the tired women and advise them to rest while she finished the work for them.
Romana’s oldest sister, Magdalene, wanted to be a nun. Antonio brought her to the “conservatory” in nearby Fasano which had recently been set up under the direction of the Discalced Carmelites. The nuns gladly accepted her but with one request – that he also allow his second daughter, Romana, to enter as well. Realizing that Romana (still clothed in a kind of religious habit) had proven that she was meant for the Lord’s service in the cloister, the doctor and his wife reluctantly consented. On October 1st 1690 she received the Carmelite habit, and took the name of Rosemary (she added “of St. Anthony” in honor of her father.)
The Superior, Sr. Cherubina of St. Joseph and the Novice mistress were amazed at the spiritual maturity of Sr. Rosemary. She was already experiencing the mystical phenomena that would play such a large role in her life. Even still, it was their duty to test her continually as to the authenticity of her vocation. All through her novitiate, they continually gave her mortifications. They took away her comfortable bed and warm covers her father had provided for her and gave her a decrepit cot and patched up bedding. She was put in a room where rain and snow fell on her through the loosened roof tiles and still Sr. Rosemary never complained.
Since they couldn’t find fault with her they would accuse her of faults committed by others, and still the 16 year old novice remained silent or would thank them for pointing out her faults and ask for forgiveness. Even though they tested her in these ways, at other times they would tell her to go pray for a certain special intention with had been commended to the community’s prayers because her prayers were recognized to be particularly powerful before God. When pestilence had afflicted most of the population of Fasano, her superiors asked her to intercede with the Lord for the monastery and none of the nuns were affected. Then at other times, her superiors would publically call her a hypocrite, an intruder, a trick artist, a useless nun without virtue.
Rosemary preferred her cell, and to go unnoticed by others. The Superior, intent on not letting her fall into spiritual pride, ordered her for several months to bring her cot and all her possessions nto the corridor where the other nuns could not miss her. She was always attentive to the presence of God who favored her with extraordinary forms of prayer. She was known to be rapt in ecstasy where she would be oblivious to everything around her for hours at a time. When her senses would return to her, she would be embarrassed and not talk about them except when required to speak under obedience.
Her Superior enlisted a panel of theologians to examine her. Even though they declared themselves ‘satisfied’, Sr. Cherubina postponed Rosemary’s oblation for 4 months to test her further, and also to allow her parents to be present. Finally, on the Feast of Epiphany, rapt in ecstasy, Sr. Rosemary was professed. When her parents finally arrived, they were not pleased with the rigor and poverty of the Fasano community and were determined to move Rosemary to another monastery. Sr. Cherubina unsuccessfully tried to change their minds and called Rosemary to hear her parents’ decision. Rosemary, however, was more adamant than her parents and told them she would rather die than leave, they finally gave her their blessing.
The sisters followed the Rule of St. Teresa of Avila which prescribed no more than twenty-one religious to a house but there were over thirty and so the Superior turned to Sr. Rosemary asking her to pray for enlightenment. She said she was visited by St. Teresa herself who told her to live under the Constitution of Mary Magdalene de’Pazzi. They discovered this constitution had no restrictions as to the number in a community and this resolution was gratefully adopted. They transferred to a new monastery that would housing eighty.
Rumors of this visionary reached the Vicar General, and when a well-known confessor of cloistered nuns was passing though Fasano the Vicar General asked him to interview Sr. Rosemary. He wrote a letter to the local bishop, calling her a perfect example of a witch, and that if she were not removed immediately, the entire monastery would collapse.
The Vicar General immediately ordered Rosemary imprisoned in the farthest cell from the others and fed only bread and water. The entire monastery was in shock, but Sr. Rosemary accepted her cross as another opportunity to suffer with Jesus. While imprisoned, much like St. John of the Cross, she continued to have extraordinary visitations from the Lord.
She was eventually released from her prison and was allowed to return to community, and her ecstasies continued. The Superior ordered Rosemary to ask for a sign from heaven which would indicate that her gifts were from God and not a delusion from the devil. Rosemary made a retreat between Ascension and Pentecost 1694. On the Feast of Pentecost, the sign requested for was granted …At Communion Rosemary took ill and had to be helped to her cell. The Superior asked her under obedience what had happened, Sr. Rosemary revealed the Holy Spirit had granted her the gift of the wounds of the Passion of Jesus. The amount of blood that Rosemary shed made the Superior panic as she could not control the bleeding. She told Rosemary to ask the Lord to stop the blood which was granted and she was told that she would suffer this way only on Fridays in March, Good Friday and the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows.
Because she was weakened by the pain of her wounds, the Superior assigned her to the turnstile where she would deal with the pleas of the poor as a distraction. She not only shared her small portion of bread and vegetables with the poor, but she would beg the other sisters to share their portion also. In August 1700 a drought emptied the local wells and people came to the monastery to beg water from the monastery well. When the Superior saw the crowds of people begging water every day, she feared their well would also dry up and gave orders not to give any more water to outsiders. Suddenly, the monastery well began to dry up and did not return to its normal level until the penitent superior gave orders to share the water as before.
More than once she was found levitating. On one occasion the superior could not find her and she sent her sisters though the grounds looking for her. One sister looked in the chapel and glanced towards the ceiling and saw Sr. Rosemary raised high above everything.
Often on July 16th, the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, she would be rapt in prayer and would be granted a vision of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel surrounded by a multitude of the Saints of Carmel in a garden decorated with magnificent floral arrangements. On one July 16th, along with Our Lady of Carmel, she rescued souls from Purgatory. She was heard to exclaim “Ah fortunate Carmel! You have Mary as your Mother, by her protection she slays the infernal dragon.”
At the age of twenty-five she was named Novice Mistress and by the age of twenty-eight, even with many older sisters, she was unanimously chosen as Prioress. She knelt in front of the community’s Vicar-priest and begged him to have another vote for someone else, stating she could not survive without the benefit of obedience (Most times the only way she was brought back from her ecstasies was by a command of obedience). The priest provided a compromise that Sr. Rosemary would accept the position of prioress but an older nun would be named over her who would be able to charge her in the name of obedience. On Our Lady’s Birthday, September 8th, she took charge of the monastery.
Even as Prioress, Sr. Rosemary continued to take on the manual tasks in the community and continued to live a truly poor life, choosing the most patched up, and worn habit for herself. Her visions and ecstasies continued even as Prioress especially on the greater feasts of the liturgical year.
The sisters continued to re-elect her for the next eighteen years even though after the first two three-year terms, the nuns had to appeal to Rome each time for a dispensation. Every time her three-year term ended, she would beg to be relieved of her charge, but the community was convinced she was destined to lead them to an authentic life of Carmelite holiness. She would accept her renewed charge of prioress when in obedience the priest-in-charge told her it was God’s Will that she accept.
Her last term had an added suffering. She had a cough that would torment her day and night. The sisters had already obtained permission from Rome again to re-elect her, but the priest Vicar had pity on her and proposed a compromise. The sisters would elect another, but Sr. Rosemary would remain with the title of Mother and Mistress and the sisters could have recourse to her. On May 8th 1722, Sr. Clair of the Passion, one of the original foundresses was elected Prioress.
During all her years of service as superior, Rosemary continued to receive special gifts including the stigmata which on designated days caused her head, side, hands and feet to bleed profusely. She often asked Jesus to hide the stigmata but allow her to retain the sufferings from them. She asked for this for 16 years from 1707 to 1723. She would wear fingerless gloves which would hide the wounds. Finally, on Ascension Thursday, 1723 she was inspired to join the community for the chanting of None with her sisters. The Lord appeared to her with the Aspostles, the Bl. Mother and St. Mary Magdalene de’ Pazzi. As Jesus began to ascend into heaven, she asked for his blessing on the monastery and asked once again for her wounds to be healed. Her prayer was finally granted. Her wounds healed except for a scab that remained, but she retained the pain of the wounds until her death.
On September 14th, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, Rosemary wished to follow custom and renew her vows with the other sisters. After the Te Deum she embraced each of the sisters and again asked they forgive her for her defects during her Priorate. On the third Friday in March, which was the season of Lent, her neck bent forward so that her head rested on her chest and she could not straighten it. She remained this way until her death.
Four days before she died she gave an exhortation to the sisters urging them to faithful observance of the Rule and Constitutions and to the practice of the virtues, especially of obedience. She then asked the nurses to raise her head so that she could take one last look at her beloved community. The doctors visited her and foretold of a recovery but Sr. Rosemary felt her days were short. During the night she called for Viaticum which she received at 6am. For the next few days she could be heard whispering ‘Holy, holy, holy’ and that was the last thing she said before she died on May 9th 1726 at 11pm at 52 years old. She had been a religious for 36 years.
The cause of Rosemary’s canonization, initiated in 1741 (15 years after her death) was not completed before the end of the century when the activity of the Congregation of Rites came to a halt in the troubles of the times. It has since remained at a at a standstill in the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.