INTERVIEW WITH MOTHER ELVIRA
(From the book A HOPE REBORN)
Let us listen to the words of Mother Elvira, God’s chosen instrument to bring Comunita Cenacolo to life, who recounts the birth of the Community and its development throughout the years.
Mother Elvira, you have lived 70 years of life, 50 of which you have lived as a consecrated religious in the service of God and humanity. Looking back and reflecting on your life, poured out as a gift for others, what can you tell us?
First of all, a big “thank you” to God who wanted my life. I believe that in the moment in which “papa” and “mamma” conceived me, God’s will already existed for something beautiful, great, and fruitful for others. I am happy to live, giving my life for others. I feel that it is enriching, especially for me. I am rich because, from the time I was a child, sacrifices taught me to give myself to others, to serve, to smile and to overcome difficulty without a “long face.” I am happy to find myself still today in the school of service.
Thinking about your family life, what would you like to tell us about your story in the light of God whom you encountered?
Thinking about when I was a child and the situations that I experienced, today I can say it was a beautiful story precisely because it was filled with so much struggle and hardship. I saw that there were other families, other children like me, but who were living another reality that to me seemed richer in peace and better off than I was. Then I realized that true peace and well-being are dimensions of our heart. We feel them when we are good and generous. I remember something my mother repeated to me every time she found me with friends who were my age and were better off than we were. When we had a piece of bread in our house, and during the war it wasn’t easy to have bread, or when there were cherries, “mamma” told me, “Remember, Rita, that all mouths are sisters! And you can’t put something in your mouth without giving something to someone else.” Even in the hardship of poverty, she formed us in actions of solidarity that meant “family.” It is when we give to others that we become a universal family who together can pray, “Our Father.”
You were already a “good” nun and felt good in your Congregation. Where did the idea to open the Community come from?
Surely it wasn’t my idea, and I want to say this and repeat it. What is happening, the story that we are living, cannot be born from the ideas or intuitions of a poor human being. I am the first to be surprised each moment about what is happening in this Community which is a work of God, of the Holy Spirit, and of Mary. How could I have invented a story like this?
My heart moved towards the young people that were lost. I saw them “without a shepherd,” without a reference point, in danger, although very well off with money in their pockets, a car, an education, with everything they could want materially, yet their hearts were filled with sadness and death. I experienced agony when I had to wait to give birth to that which the Holy Spirit was molding and developing inside me, which was new even for me.
Many years passed before starting. For you, a courageous woman of action, was it difficult to wait?
It wasn’t difficult; instead, it was suffered, because it seemed like I was wasting time. In reality, it was God’s time, and I had to wait for the right moment for the youth, the moment to protect them, educate them, and love them. I waited with a lot of trust and hope. There were also some who said, “Elvira, why don’t you leave your Congregation? That way you can do what you want!” But I didn’t intend to “do what I wanted.” What was happening in me was very different than that. This is why I waited, prayed, suffered, loved.
My superiors were right when they told me that I wasn’t prepared to go among the youth. There were moments of temptation, when I would think, “Why don’t they trust me?” But then I said to myself, “Why should they trust me? I am only a poor creature who wants to fly…”
Now, at seventy years of age, I reason a little more, and I understand that all this was a blessing. These were the labor pains. Today I am very close to those who were my Superiors. We are friends, and many of the Sisters are as amazed as I am, because they know me and, therefore, they really understand that this comes from God. For many years now the Sisters of St. Giovanna Antida Thouret have a Community house of Cenacolo in the same convent house where I was a novice, and I thank them for the friendship, love and generosity that they show us.
When you arrived at the gate of the house in Saluzzo for the first time on July 16, 1983, what did you think?
I didn’t think anything. At that time I didn’t think at all. I don’t remember planning anything, not in my thoughts and much less on paper and, even less, in a hurry. When I saw that gate, I was overjoyed. Life exploded inside me! It was the joy that had been won by the long time of waiting and the joy of the moment in which my desires were being fulfilled. The people who had accompanied me were wringing their hands when they saw this desolate and abandoned place, but I saw it already rebuilt and renovated, full of young people, of life, of joy, exactly as it is today.
Why did you choose the name “Comunita Cenacolo” (Community of the Cenacle)?
There was a priest that came to live for a short time with the youth. He suggested this name, and I accepted it, because I welcomed the advice that was given to me, and then I did what the Lord wanted. Immediately I thought of the Church, of the Apostles gathered with Mary in the Cenacle, doors locked and full of fear after Jesus’ death. It was a prophecy for me because the young men and women that come to us are full of fear, too, closed and withdrawn, mute in thought and word, with so, so much loneliness and restlessness in their heart. But the Holy Spirit came with Mary to the Cenacle, and the Apostles were changed into courageous witnesses. I saw that it was the name that best represented what we wanted to be.
You started from nothing, without any money or human security, trusting in God’s Providence. Why did you make this choice, and what is Providence?
Providence is God’s heart that knocks at the heart of man, at the heart of all humanity. We trusted because faith called us not to be afraid. Faith cultivated hope, trust, and patience, and helped us put our security in God, who knows our hearts. The Lord gave me much more of a guarantee than all the human security possible! I discovered God as a Father when I was still a child, and I learned to entrust myself to Him when poverty was at its worst, when we did not have anything, and I would hear my mother often repeat, “Holy Cross of God, do not abandon us!” No one wants to suffer, but here I came to understand how important it is to learn how to live with the Cross, because the Cross is our mother, and we have to love her in order to live the other parts of our life well.
I wanted the young people that I took in, not only to hear us speak about God, but to see His concrete, practical Fatherhood. I said to Him, “I will take them in, welcome them, and You show them the Father that you are!” He has never, never disappointed us!
What do you remember about the beginning, the early days?
I started out with Nives, whom I have known since I was a teacher, and with Sister Aurelia who was in my same order. They stayed by my side, and together we made many mistakes because, exactly like my superiors had told me, we didn’t know anything about youth and, even less, about drug addicts and alcoholics.
In the beginning, I knew that all the communities handed out ten cigarettes a day, and so we gave them, too. Then someone said, “They are men. They need to drink a glass of wine,” and so we gave it to them, but this created disagreements and conflict, and we looked at each other in dismay. Then I came to feel that I had to exercise the authority the Lord had given me for these young men with truth and strength.
There is one important detail that I remember. In 1986, thanks to some friends that offered to pay for our trip, I went for the first time with a group of young men on a pilgrimage to Medjugorje. There I perceived interiorly that I needed to be stronger, more demanding, and so one evening when I returned, I knelt before the young men in the chapel in Saluzzo and I said, “Young men, I betrayed you because I did not trust you. You came here to be helped to live in true freedom from all dependencies, and I let you keep cigarettes because I was afraid you would leave. Beginning this evening, there is no more smoking!” Then I called on one guy to collect all of the cigarettes. I saw with amazement and joy that everyone put their hands in their pockets and threw them away. We built a great bonfire while singing and praying. We were free from that dependency!
Did you think that the Community would become so big when it was born?
I can’t believe it even today! It’s something that is much bigger than I am. I thought of opening just one house. When one young man would leave, we would just take in another. But when the Mother House was overcrowded with mattresses on the floor, at a certain point I just couldn’t send them away, because they were asking for life, not to eat or to sleep, but to be able to live! So we found another house, then another, and then… I don’t even count anymore.
How were you able to convince young men that were living on the streets to pray? Why did you propose the faith to them?
Truly I did not make the proposal of faith with words, but by practicing and living the prayer. We didn’t even have the chapel yet when the young men began to arrive. Sister Aurelia, Nives, and I said the Rosary and prayed the Breviary. It was a great surprise when a young man, early in the morning, instead of going to work, sat next to me and asked, “What are you doing?” “We are praying!” He stayed. We were praying a Psalm, and he read a verse, too. After him, another young man came, then another, and then even another.
It hadn’t occurred to us, but through that situation I understood that the young men were asking me to help them find God, that they were hungry and thirsty for Him. This is how the proposal of prayer and faith became the foundation of this journey of rebirth.
When they enter the Community, many of them say, “I don’t believe in Jesus. At home we always quarreled, and I don’t want to pray!” And I respond, “You came here not only to be freed from drugs, but also from your fears and from all your past. You get on your knees; I, we, believe for you. We will believe for you. Try to trust. Try and you will see.”
Why did you immediately want to involve families in their son’s journey? What do you ask of the families of the youth?
This is extremely important. I ask a lot of them: I ask for their conversion! Almost always they would prefer to pay a fee, especially when they are desperate. They all offered us money, and we answered, “The lives of your sons can’t be bought with money. Your sons have already had too much money, and it destroyed their lives! Instead, we want collaboration that involves your lives, your choices, your daily steps in a journey of Christian faith. As the truth enters your families, even you will realize that you made some mistakes that caused the failure of the whole family, and that your son will only be saved if his parents convert.”
How does it feel to see many young people from different countries become missionaries for other youth and for children?
I know that I can only be amazed because all of this did not come from me, and my only desire is to let God continue to stir up holy and clean desires in the hearts of many young people. The missions, for example, were born in the heart of a young man that entered the Community wounded and disappointed by the adult world, who after encountering the Mercy of God and forgiving his father, strongly felt the need to do something for the many children in the world that suffer because of the selfishness of us adults. This is how our missionary houses were born for street children! Definitely, I know very well that I must fulfill my duty of being the “heart,” the voice that stirs the conscience of our young men, but I do not have anything to boast about because nothing was done out of a duty or by force. Everything arrived, day by day, like a peaceful river that runs its course.
What do you ask of your collaborators, those whom God has called and is calling to serve Him in His work?
I ask for everything: their intelligence, their will, their arms, their eyes…because I am convinced that, if we keep anything for ourselves, our gifts are falsified, diminished, and impoverished. What you do not give, rots inside you and becomes pain, sadness, fear, demands, selfishness, overbearing arrogance, ambition and power… For this reason we ask for everything in faith and in trust. When we lack something, we just have to wait. To be patient is already a prayer; love is prayer; waiting on God’s time is prayer. We place ourselves in the posture of living everything in our lives in and through faith because, even if we are in darkness, we know the light exists.