At least five biographers have written of Saint Alphonsus Liguori. The first of these, and the most competent to speak, was Father Tannoia, a contemporary of the Saint. It is from Father Tannoia that we learn some intimate details of Donna Anna, the Saint’s mother. In his biography, Father Tannoia introduces Donna Anna by saying that she was venerated by all who knew her in Naples, for her spirit of prayer, her many penances, her detachment from worldly amusements, and, above all, her love for the poor.
He gives us, too, a perfect picture of Donna Anna, the mother, by recording her relation to her children. ‘I was privileged to know this noble lady and to speak with her. Her memory, as I look back now, calls up before me the image of the great Queen Blanche of Castille (the mother of Saint Louis IX of France). I learned from Don Cajetan, the brother of Alphonsus, that every morning the good mother, after blessing her children, had them kneel down and say their prayers. Every evening she would gather them around her and teach them the truths of Faith with her own lips. She would always say the Rosary with them and taught them exercises of devotion to many saints. She was watchful of their companionships and would not let them mix freely with children of their own age, preferring to forestall sin by sanctifying grace rather than run any risk of their falling. She taught them to hate sin by every means in her power. For this reason, she took them to confession each week to her own spiritual director and kinsman, Father Pagano.’
Alphonsus himself, in later life, gave ample testimony to the goodness of his mother. ‘I must confess,’ he said, ‘that if I was good at all during my childhood, if I was preserved from evil, I owe it entirely to my mother’s care. Most of the time, my father was away at sea and could not devote himself as he might wish to the education and training of his children. Thus the whole burden fell on my mother.’
Donna Anna Cavalieri was the wife of Don Joseph Liguori, a distinguished nobleman and captain of one of the royal galleys. She was the mother of eight children, of whom Alphonsus, the eldest, was to become priest, bishop, founder of the Redemptorist Congregation and Doctor of the Church.
If it is true that opposites attract opposites, we have an illustration in the characters of Don Joseph and Donna Anna. Their temperaments were diametrically opposed.
Don Joseph was choleric and severe, and, by his naval training, a strict disciplinarian. A product of his age, he saw nothing contrary to religious principles in fostering great worldly ambitions for his first-born son. In contrast to Don Joseph, Anna’s one ambition was that the children should all do the Holy Will of God. The effect of her influence and early training on the children is seen from the subsequent history of the members of the family.
Of her eight children, Magdalene died in infancy; Antonio became a Benedictine monk at Monte Casino; Cajetan was a diocesan priest, known for his holiness; Hercules married, and the affection of Alphonsus for his brother and his children shows the strength of the family ties. Of the girls, Mary Louise and Mary Anna entered the Convent. Teresa married the Duke of Presengano. The life of each one of them paid some tribute to the sterling character and qualities of their mother.
Donna Anna cherished the hope that her first-born might one day be a priest.
But when Alphonsus became the brilliant lawyer, her dream seemed to fade. When God did call Alphonsus to the priesthood, Don Joseph strenuously resisted his son’s vocation. Anna sought the advice of her kinsman, Bishop Cavalieri. He counselled a continuance of her wise silence. Finally, Don Joseph requested the bishop to dissuade Alphonsus from giving up his brilliant legal career. The bishop’s answer sounded the death knell to Don Joseph’s ambition. ‘I myself renounced my rights as eldest son in order to save my soul. Would you have me advise your son to do the opposite at the risk of losing my soul with his?’
Time, God’s great healer, and Donna Anna’s evident joy softened the blow of Don Joseph’s disappointment. In the evening of his life, he bitterly regretted his opposition to his son’s vocation.
Anna lived to see her dreams realized. Alphonsus was ordained in 1726. He founded the Redemptorists in 1732. Her long life of 85 years came to a close in 1755, seven years before Alphonsus was consecrated bishop.
Alphonsus was at her side to bring her comfort in her last days, but was forced to leave two days before her death. He went on God’s work, as so often before, with Donna Anna’s blessing ringing in his ears.