Maria Goretti, Virgin and Martyr (1890-1902)

Fr. Emanuel Herkel, SSPX

Blessed are the clean of heart, 
for they shall see God.” –Mt. 5:8

Violation and murder are real threats for today’s youth. This is a true story. It is vile, it is edifying, and it is recommended for all teenagers and even younger children under the direction of their parents.

He Tried to Violate a Child!

Alex was a morose 18-year-old boy; that means he had a bitter, unsociable temper. There is a sin called morose delectation: deliberately enjoying sexual thoughts without the desire to really act on them. Perhaps morose is the wrong word, for Alex’s hormone-driven passions led him to act on his thoughts about an 11-year-old girl.

Straitened Circumstances

The short life of Maria Goretti was full of unfortunate events which left her in a vulnerable position. Her poor parents re-located across Italy to an area south of Rome. They signed a contract with Count Mazzoleni as tenant farmers, and Mr. Luigi Goretti worked himself to the point of sickness, which led to his death. In the days of his sickness, the Count imposed on the Goretti family two boarders who were to help with the farming. Thus Giovanni Serenelli and his son Alexander began to live in the Goretti home.

In this difficult situation, Mrs. Assunta Goretti proved her strength. After the death of her husband, Luigi, she stayed on the farm with her five children. Due to poverty, she had few options, but she tried to make the best of it. She even prompted Giovanni Serenelli to relatively productive behavior, although he drank

The greater problem was his boy, Alex. He had no friends. He was far older than the Goretti children. His father had little control over him and did not try to correct his moral delinquency. Alex read lurid magazines (modern-style pornography was not available in Catholic Italy, but notice the bad effect of moderately impure reading and pictures). Alex’s attitude toward women was a mixture of chauvinism and lust. His own mother had died in a lunatic asylum, and this certainly must have twisted his young mind.

Mother’s Little Helper

Maria did not like Alex, but she was polite to him and she did work for him, as she did work for everyone in her poor home. After the death of Luigi, Assunta and her eldest son often had to work in the fields with the Serenellis. Maria cleaned the house, cooked food, and cared for her younger brothers and sisters.

There was no attempt at formal schooling. Maria never learned to read or write, but she wanted to learn her catechism well enough to receive her first Communion. A kind old woman from a nearby village helped her. Maria was bright enough to remember the answers, and she passed her oral test with the local priest. Maria made her first Communion with a group of children on the feast of Corpus Christi, 1902. All the children were about age ten, as was the custom before the reforms of Pope St. Pius X. On that special day, Father Signori preached about “purity at all costs.”

Uncontrolled Passion

It was the summer of 1902 when Alex began to act on his desire for Maria. Alex did not want a relationship which might lead to a good marriage. There is no record that he ever told Maria he loved her. He told her that he wanted her, and when the 11-year-old girl reacted with fear of the 18-year-old boy, he threatened to hurt her if she told anyone.

Maria Goretti made one big mistake. She knew that Alex was asking her to commit a sexual sin, and she did not want to participate. But she was too afraid to tell her mother. For several weeks Maria was acting odd. Assunta noticed it, but she was too busy and tired to take her daughter aside for an intimate conversation.

Alex approached Maria twice when she was working alone. She ran away from him, leaving her work undone. It was then that Alex’s thoughts turned violent. So far he had only used words to threaten her. Now he had to convince Maria that he was serious. He found an old tool and he spent his spare time sharpening it into a dagger nine and a half inches long.


Saturday, July 5, 1902, was a busy work day. The pea pods had been drying in the hot sun, and it was time to break them open. Lacking a machine, they used an old method: Alex drove an ox-cart in a circle over the peas, cracking them. Then even the young Goretti children could help to gather the peas.

Maria was sitting on the steps of the house, watching her baby sister and mending one of Alex’s shirts. Giovanni took a break and fell asleep in the sun. Then Alex stopped the cart. “Assunta,” he shouted, “will you drive the cart for a while?” Assunta did not refuse; somebody had to do the work. Alex headed for the house and took his dagger out of its hiding place. He called Maria. She answered from the steps outside the door, but she was too close. Alex reached out and grabbed her; he pulled her in and closed the door before she tried to scream.

“No! No! What are you doing, Alex? Do not touch me! It is a sin. You will go to hell!” Alex gagged her with a handkerchief and snarled with rage. She was not supposed to resist. He picked up his dagger and held it before her eyes. For a moment he paused, giving her one last chance to change her mind. Maria knew this was not an idle threat. She held up her arms to keep it away, but Alex plunged the sharp object into her, again and again.

Maria collapsed, spit out the gag and cried: “O God! Mamma! Mamma!” Alex was in a rage. He stabbed her through the back, close to the heart. Maria dropped to the floor, almost dead.

Alex looked down at what he had done. The baby on the steps was crying and Assunta was coming toward the house. Panic seized Alex. He ran to his room and locked the door. He threw his dagger under his dresser. The police found him there hours later.

The Agony and Death of a Saint

Maria died slowly over the next twenty hours. She was taken by horse-cart (ambulance) to the closest hospital at Nettuno. The doctors performed surgery in an attempt to stop her bleeding, but too many organs had been pierced. Maria had 14 stab wounds.

Assunta clung to her dying child. Sometimes Maria would whisper a few words. The police came and took a statement. Father Signori brought Holy Viaticum. He was privileged to give Maria both first and last Holy Communions. This priest realized the sanctity of the little girl, and he chose to challenge her on her death bed: “Remember, my child, how Jesus died upon the cross, how He forgave everyone. And you, Maria, do you forgive your murderer?” “Yes,” she answered, “for the love of Jesus, I forgive him…, and I want him to be with me in Paradise.”

What Happens to a Criminal?

Alex spent the next 40 years in jail. For a long time he was unrepentant. Then, one night he shouted for the guards; he wanted to see a priest! Alex later gave testimony under oath, admitting his crime, testifying that Maria had never intentionally provoked him to sin, and finally revealing the marvelous vision he had one night in the jail: Maria Goretti had appeared to Alex and offered him God’s mercy.

Years later, when Alex was released from jail, he made a journey. He found the old woman, Assunta, and he begged her pardon. They received Holy Communion, side by side, on Christmas Day. Then Alex went away and spent the rest of his life as a gardener at a monastery.


The story of Maria Goretti always brings tears to the eyes. We do not cry much over her wounds and blood. We cry over her words of mercy and forgiveness. Our tears are tears of joy for the love which conquers death.

When Pope Pius XII canonized this new saint in 1950, he composed a prayer which summarizes our feelings: “O beautiful and lovable saint! Martyr on earth and angel in Heaven, look down from your glory on this people.…To you, therefore, powerful intercessor with the Lamb of God, we entrust these our sons and daughters….Fathers and mothers have recourse to you, asking you to help them in their task of education. In you…the children and all the young people will find a safe refuge, trusting that they shall be protected from every contamination, and be able to walk the highways of life with that serenity of spirit and deep joy which is the heritage of those who are pure of heart. Amen.”