Mother Elvira Petrozzi, who founded Comunità Cenacolo in 1983 to provide hope and healing to those suffering from addiction, died on Aug. 3 in the formation house and residence of her congregation in Saluzzo, Italy. She was 86.
Her death, following a long illness, came just weeks after thousands of people gathered in Saluzzo, a hilltop town in Italy’s northwest Piedmont region about an hour’s drive south of Turin, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Cenacolo Community’s founding there in an abandoned home on July 16, 1983.
In the decades since, the community has grown to encompass 72 Cenacolo houses in 20 countries, including four in the United States.
Mother Elvira called the Cenacolo a “School of Life” because it took people off the streets and gave them a “rebirth” that was “based on a simple, family-oriented, orderly life” with the foundation of prayer, physical labor, discipline, and fraternal sharing.
“How could I invent a story like this? Everything happened without me even realizing it,” she once remarked.
“I dove into God’s mercy and I rolled up my sleeves to love, love, love … and serve!” she said. “I am the first to surprise myself with what has happened and what is happening in the life of the Cenacolo Community. It’s a work of God, the Holy Spirit, and of Mary.”
Bishop Robert Baker, bishop emeritus of Birmingham, Alabama, first met Mother Elvira in 1991. The two developed a close friendship and together they co-founded four Comunità Cenacolos in the U.S. Southeast, including one near Hanceville, Alabama.
Bishop Baker was among Mother Elvira’s many friends, supporters, and community members who were able to visit with her in her final days.
“I had the blessing of being invited to come to be at her bedside,” he told the National Catholic Register, CNA’s partner news outlet. “I was with her and I was able to give her a blessing.”
Born Rita Petrozzi, Mother Elvira was born in Sora, Italy, in 1937 and grew up in a poor family, taking the name Elvira upon entering the Sisters of Charity of St. Jeanne Antide Thouret as a teenager.
It wasn’t until 27 years later that she felt inspired to help young addicts and other youth to change their lives. Rooted in her Catholic faith and God’s love for every person, her methods were so effective that they led to others wanting a Comunità Cenacolo established in their region.
Prior to meeting her, Bishop Baker founded a drug addiction center called Our Lady of Hope Community in St. Augustine, Florida. Then visiting Rome when he was rector of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine, he learned of Mother Elvira, spoke with her, and at his invitation agreed to establish a Cenacolo community with her entire program at Our Lady of Hope in 1992. The two friends went on to co-found two other houses in the St. Augustine area and a fourth house in Alabama.
Bishop Baker celebrated one of the Masses for the thousands of people attending the 40th anniversary celebration in Saluzzo. In his homily, he reflected on the time when he arranged to use an ornamental nursery to raise funds for the Cenacolo program in Florida, but when community members arrived from Italy they explained that Mother Elvira had instructed them to rely instead on divine providence.
“It was the result of her own closeness to the Lord in the Eucharist, which enabled her to see the immensity of God’s love. And if God loves us so immensely, he will provide for us,” he said.
After 30 years, no one has gone hungry in that Florida house or any of the community’s houses. “The point being, she was right,” Bishop Baker said.
The daily schedule at these houses includes Mass, eucharistic adoration, Marian devotion with three rosaries minimum a day, and devotion to St. Joseph. Every day members pray simply: “St. Joseph, provide for us.”
“The heart of it is, of course, the Eucharist,” Bishop Baker explained.
“Part of Elvira’s training is to divest to get rid of the stuff you don’t need,” he said. “So, the divesting, the trust in divine providence, and then … the Eucharist, praying before the Lord. That’s where her greatest strength was — the Eucharist, where she had all these insights. [You] have to have the sense of God’s immense love, which she had from praying before the Eucharist. And then because you know God loves you immensely, he will provide for you.”
When Bishop Baker visited Mother Elvira shortly before her death, he noted upon entering the house a mosaic on the floor that spells out the words “Dio Provvede” (God Provides).
‘Consumed with God’s Love’
Florida residents Sean and Elaine Corrigan, who met Mother Elvira in 2000, lived in her community for some time and served in its missions in Brazil.
The couple credits her for saving their marriage.
“She had an extraordinary impact on our lives and on our marriage,” Elaine Corrigan told the Register. “Mother Elvira was a person fully in love with her Savior. She knew, she accepted, and she believed completely in his merciful love, and her great desire was to share him with others.
“I wanted to run after her and soak up all that she had,” she continued. “When we met Mother Elvira, we knew we had encountered a woman completely consumed with the love of God. She knew in the core of her being that he could and would heal people. She shared this hope and mercy with everyone she met.”
Albino Aragno, who started with the Cenacolo more than 30 years ago and today is the director of Comunità Cenacolo America, said Mother Elvira taught him many valuable lessons.
“Mother Elvira always encouraged me. She reminded me that life is precious and that life needs to be lived fully … to never be afraid to do God’s will, and always trust in him,” he said.
“Because of this, I can say that in all these years I can see that our community has kept on going even through so many difficulties, because good always prevails!”
Albino’s wife, Joyce, said Mother Elvira had a profound effect on her from the very beginning.
“Mother Elvira said, ‘Lord, let me know your will in the moment you want me to do it.’ This pierced my heart the first time I heard it and moved me to try to live every moment of my life in surrender and abandonment to his will, as Jesus reveals it at that moment,” she explained.
“It’s so radically opposed to control and trusting ‘in my own understanding,’ as the Psalmist says — my own intellect, perception, and analysis. Jesus calls me to live totally in the moment, not depending on myself.”
Pope Francis paid tribute to the Comunità Cenacolo on its 40th anniversary following his July 16 Angelus reflection.
“I send my heartfelt greeting to the Cenacolo Community, which has been a place of hospitality and human promotion for 40 years,” the pope said. “I bless Mother Elvira, the bishop of Saluzzo, and all the fraternity and friends. What you do is good, and it is good that you exist! Thank you!”
Bishop Baker said he observed during a recent Mass how “in periods of the Church there are great saints that get us through the eras in which we live.”
He pointed to St. Benedict in the fourth century, the Dominicans and Franciscans in the 13th century during the Albigensian heresy, and St. Ignatius and the Jesuits in the 16th century at the time of the Reformation.
“Mother Elvira,” he believes, is “on that list.”