Maria Gemma Umberta Pia Galgani (or Gemma Galgani as she became commonly known) was born on March 12, 1878 in the hamlet of Borgo Nuovo in the provincial town of Capannori. Gemma was the fifth of eight children; her father, Enrico Galgani, was a prosperous pharmacist.
Soon after Gemma’s birth, the family relocated north from Borgo Nuovo to a large new home in the Tuscan city of Lucca in a move which was undertaken to facilitate an improvement in the children’s education. Aurelia Galgani began to suffer from tuberculosis and so at two-and-a-half years of age Gemma was placed into a private nursery school which was run by Elena and Ersilia Vallini and became noted for being a highly intelligent child.
The Galgani family suffered a large number of deaths. Their firstborn child, Carlo, died at an early age. On September 17, 1885, Aurelia Galgani succumbed to the tuberculosis from which she had suffered for five years. Gemma’s beloved brother Gino, while studying for the priesthood, died from tuberculosis and her little sister Giulia also died at a young age.
Gemma went on to study at Saint Zita School. Gemma was not accepted by the Passionists to become a nun because of her poor health and her visions. At age 20, Gemma developed spinal meningitis, but was miraculously healed, attributing her extraordinary cure to the Sacred Heart of Jesus through the intercession of Venerable Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows (later canonized a saint), and Saint Marguerite Marie Alacoque.
Gemma was orphaned shortly after she turned 18, making her responsible for the upbringing of her younger siblings, which she did with her aunt Carolina. She declined two marriage proposals and became a housekeeper with the Giannini family.
According to a biography, written by her spiritual director, Reverend Germanus Ruoppolo, CP (now a venerable), Gemma began to display signs of the stigmata on June 8, 1899 at the age of twenty-one. She stated that she had spoken with her guardian angel, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and other saints (especially Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows). According to her testimonies, she sometimes received special messages from them about current or upcoming events. With her health in decline, Ruoppolo directed her to pray for the disappearance of her stigmata; she did so and the marks ceased.
Gemma was well-known in the vicinity of Lucca before her death, especially to those in poverty. Opinions of her were divided: some people admired her extraordinary virtues and referred to her as The Virgin of Lucca out of pious respect and admiration; others mocked her (including her younger sister, Angelina, who apparently used to make fun of Gemma during such experiences, and during Gemma’s canonization process was deemed as ‘unfit’ to testify due to accusations of attempting profit from Gemma’s reputation), and in light of the extraordinary events surrounding her life, some skeptics thought that she had a mental illness.
Gemma was often treated with disdain by some church hierarchy; even her own confessor was at times skeptical of her mystical gifts. Her spiritual director, Reverend Ruoppolo, was initially reserved, but after a thorough and prudent examination of the ongoing events surrounding her, he became completely convinced of the authenticity of her mystical life. After her death, he wrote a detailed biography of her life, and was responsible for gathering all her writings, including her diary, autobiography, and letters.
In early 1903, Gemma was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and thus began a long and often painful death. There were numerous extraordinary mystical phenomena that occurred during her final illness. One of the religious nursing sisters who attended to her stated, “We have cared for a good many sick people, but we have never seen anything like this.” At the beginning of Holy Week 1903, her health quickly deteriorated, and by Good Friday she was suffering tremendously. Gemma died in a small room across from the Giannini house on Holy Saturday – April 11, 1903. A
After a thorough Church examination into her life, she was beatified in 1933 and canonized in 1940. Her relics are housed at the Passionist monastery in Lucca, Italy.
As one of the most popular saints of the Passionist Order, the devotion to Gemma Galgani is particularly strong both in Italy and Latin America. She is a patron saint of students and of pharmacists.