In 1902, at the age of twenty, Italian sharecropper Alessandro Serenelli gained instant infamy when he killed a young girl named Maria Goretti.
He spent the next twenty-seven years in jail for his crime. But in a reversal that only God could orchestrate, Alessandro ended up testifying in support of the young girl’s beatification. For the rest of his life, he remained devoted to Maria, who was later elevated to sainthood.
St. Maria Goretti’s story is well known. But less known is the story of how her killer turned his life around.
A Near Drowning. Cecilia Serenelli, glassy-eyed, placed her infant son, Alessandro, in the bucket dangling over the well. An older son had recently been institutionalized for mental health issues. Soon Cecilia would be too. She unfastened the rope, let go, and waited for the bucket’s splash. “It’s better that he die than that he live and suffer,” she muttered as she walked away.
An older brother heard the baby’s cries of distress and came running. He rescued Alessandro from drowning in the well, but no one could keep him from drowning in sin during the tumultuous years ahead. Only God could do that.
Poverty, Work, and Isolation. Life in Italy in the late 1800s was hard, especially for the poor—and Alessandro’s family was desperately poor. They moved multiple times looking for work. Alessandro himself began working on fishing boats when he was only thirteen. There he learned the rough words and ways of fishermen. Even so, he was a quiet boy who usually spent his free time alone, losing himself in popular newspapers, magazines, and books.
At seventeen, Alessandro and his father, Giovanni, moved nearer to Rome. Giovanni had heard of an opportunity to sharecrop for a landowner. As part of the deal, the landowner let father and son live in an abandoned factory on his property. The Serenellis shared these unusual living quarters with a second sharecropper family, the Gorettis: Luigi, Assunta, and their six children.
Work on the farm was grueling, and the conditions were worse. The farm was in a marshy, muggy, mosquito-ridden region. Luigi Goretti soon contracted malaria and died, leaving his wife and children to fend for themselves. Desperate to provide for her family, Assunta joined the two Serenellis and the other men in the fields. She put her eldest daughter, ten-year-old Maria, in charge of caring for the younger children and cooking for both families. Maria was mature for her age and was already strongly devoted to Jesus, Mary, and holiness.
Alessandro’s Crime. After the backbreaking work in the fields each day, the two families gathered to say the Rosary together. They walked seven miles on feast days to attend Mass at the nearest church. Alessandro was respectful but still isolated himself from everybody else. He often stayed in his room, where his walls displayed immodest pictures of women. He had cut them out from magazines his father gave him—a practice he formed while working the fishing boats as a boy.
Over time, Alessandro’s thoughts about women became more than just immodest. They turned dangerously lustful and violent, and the object of his lust was Maria, now eleven years old. For months, he fought these desires, but he finally gave in to them and forced himself on Maria. He was expecting an easy victory, but Maria managed to fight him off. “No!” she cried out. “Never! That is a sin!”
He tried to assault her twice more over the next few weeks, and she fended him off both times. Her resistance only angered him. Alessandro sharpened a farm tool into a weapon and hid it away. One day, when everyone else was in the fields, he pulled Maria inside the house and threatened her a third time. When she resisted again, he stabbed her fourteen times. She died the next day, but not before saying, “I forgive Alessandro and I want him with me in heaven forever.”
Imprisoned in Himself. Six months later, Alessandro was tried for murder. Assunta pled for a light sentence, but he was given thirty years of hard labor. If life on the farm was brutal, labor in an Italian prison at the turn of the twentieth century was harder. But Alessandro made things worse. He knew his sin and felt remorse but couldn’t bear to show it. He later said that “pride made me drop the mask of a hardened criminal over my face.” Instead of being contrite, he sang vulgar songs. He was abusive to prison staff and fellow prisoners alike. He even lunged at a priest who visited him.
Alessandro’s behavior was so bad that he was held in solitary confinement for three years. Worse, he was imprisoned in himself, drowning in his own self-made misery. Then, in 1908, he had a dream.
In the dream, a beautiful garden spread out before him, and Maria Goretti, dressed in white, walked toward him. Along the way, she plucked lilies and handed them to Alessandro one by one—fourteen lilies, one for each of the fourteen wounds she had received from his hand six years earlier. As he received each lily, it turned into flames. When he woke up, Alessandro knew that both Maria and the Lord had forgiven him for everything.
Alessandro kept the dream to himself for some time, but his behavior began to change. His anger melted. He was no longer violent. We don’t know exactly what the Lord was doing in his heart, but he became more docile. His change of heart was so evident that he was released from prison three years early, in 1929: two years off for good behavior, and a third year off as part of a general pardon for all prisoners after Italy’s victory in World War I.
Alessandro and Assunta. For several years after his release, Alessandro made a living working odd jobs, but his heart was not yet totally free. There was something more important than work that he needed to do. On Christmas Eve of 1934, he gathered his courage and made his way to the town where Maria’s mother, Assunta, now worked for a parish priest.
He knocked on the rectory door and waited anxiously. When the door opened, he saw Assunta, lines of age and suffering crisscrossing her face. He looked down. “Do you recognize me, Assunta?”
“Yes,” she replied. She could see the suffering in his face too.
“Do you forgive me?” Alessandro asked miserably. If he had been looking in Assunta’s eyes, he would not have worried. Her reply was swift and filled with kindness.
“If God has forgiven you, do you think I will not?”
What a blur of racing thoughts and emotions must have flooded Alessandro’s heart. He could finally live in freedom.
Alessandro and Assunta spent the evening talking in the rectory. Then they went to midnight Mass together and took Holy Communion side by side, a visible sign of the work God had done in each of their hearts—one to forgive and the other, years later, to repent. Alessandro repeated his apology in front of the congregation. His heart was now unburdened, and his life would take a quiet new turn.
After a couple of years, he decided to go live and work at a nearby Capuchin Franciscan friary. He spent his time laboring to meet the friary’s practical needs in order to free up the others for their life of prayer.
Once a Murderer, Now a Brother. Children peering out of their classroom windows could see the quiet old man gardening on the grounds of the friary, where their school was located. As they came and went, they saw him opening doors for people and carrying luggage. They never could have imagined the angry prisoner he had once been. They knew him only as “Uncle Alessandro,” a kind, peaceful “lay brother” serving the Capuchin Franciscan friars.
Alessandro’s simple exterior hid a deeper spiritual life. He attended daily Mass and said the Rosary with his new family of brothers. He testified on Maria Goretti’s behalf at the Church inquiry that led to her beatification. In private, he prayed to the young girl, and continued to visit Assunta occasionally over the years. Finally on May 6, 1970, at the age of 87, Alessandro Serenelli died in peace—by all accounts, a holy man.
Doing Good—True Comfort. After his death, a letter Alessandro had written seven years earlier was found among his belongings. In it, he briefly recounted his story of sin and forgiveness and looked ahead to his death, “the time in which I will be admitted to the vision of God.” He closed his testament this way:
May all who read this letter of mine desire to follow the blessed teaching of avoiding evil and following the good. May all believe with the faith of little children that religion with its precepts is not something one can do without. Rather, it is true comfort, and the only sure way in all of life’s circumstances—even in the most painful.
From his troubled childhood to the grueling farmwork he did as a teen to twenty-seven years’ imprisonment for murder, Alessandro Serenelli hardly seems a likely candidate for a life of peace and faith in a Capuchin Franciscan friary. But God’s mercy, spoken through his victim, her mother, and the Church rescued the man drowning in sin. He learned that Maria’s way, which he had scorned as a youth, was a far better way. He continues to call people to follow him there, into the freedom of faith and faithfulness to God.
Jay Sappington is a writer, educator, bioethicist, and musician, living in Virginia.