Pope Francis recently declared that Sister Maria Laura Mainetti, an Italian religious sister killed by three teenage girls in a Satanic sacrifice, was a martyr for the Catholic faith.
I have followed Sister Mainetti’s cause closely since I wrote about her in my book “Faith Under Fire: Dramatic Stories of Christian Courage.” Here is her story:
It all began in the spring of 2000 in the idyllic town of Chiavenna, Italy, a prosperous town of seven thousand inhabitants near Lake Como, on the border between Italy and Switzerland.
Bored with small-town life, three teenage girls named Ambra, Veronica, and Milena entered into a satanic pact, seeking to drum up a little excitement.
As heavy metal music screamed and pulsed, the girls cut their hands and wrists, poured their blood into a glass, and drank it to strengthen their allegiance and bind themselves irreversibly to their secret cause.
Then, under the cover of darkness, the girls broke into a local church, stole a Bible, and burnt it.
A few months later, on June 6, the undercurrent of evil erupted into unspeakable horror. Late that night the same three girls placed a call to the local convent of the Congregation of the Daughters of the Cross. It was the sixth day of the sixth month; the significance of this eluded police for weeks.
Sister Laura Mainetti answered the phone, and one of the girls claimed a friend had been raped, was now pregnant, and needed help. She insisted that Sister Laura meet the girl at a nearby secluded park. Sister Laura, 60, rushed out of the convent at 10:30 PM to offer help. Sister Laura never returned.
It was likely the sister didn’t suspect any danger. In any case, it was unlikely that she would have turned a deaf ear. By telling the nun of a pregnancy, the girls had appealed to a soft spot in the heart of Sister Laura, whose own mother died shortly after giving birth to her.
Sister Laura had dedicated her life to helping those in need and on the margins of society: drug addicts and prostitutes, the forgotten ones and the young. After 30 years of service, Sister Laura was well known for her social and charitable commitment to the young, dispossessed, and poor.
She considered the youth the real poor of today, and she often commented that the youngest generation were lost and given very little direction by adults. She feared for their spiritual safety.
As Sister Laura arrived in the park, Veronica beckoned her into a secluded and dark pathway, where Ambra and Milena lay concealed in shadow. Sister Laura walked bravely into the darkness.
A few minutes later, three girls hurriedly abandoned the area. Amber threw a stone in a nearby stream, where Milena cleaned blood from her shoes and Veronica busily washed the bloody knife in a nearby fountain.
The girls were seen later that night at an amusement park, acting like the 16- and 17-year-old girls they were—as if nothing at all had happened.
The following morning a passerby discovered the body. Sister Laura had been stabbed 19 times. News of the horrible crime spread quickly across the small town by word of mouth.
Soon the eyes of Europe fell upon the town, which up to that time was not known for any crimes more serious than trivial vandalism or minor theft. Within 24 hours the largest European dailies all prominently featured the mysterious murder of the nun. One channel ran a news special on the murder.
At first, the police sought out the drug addicts and prostitutes who had most recently received help from the sisters. But a witness testified to police that she’d seen the nun on the night of the murder walking with a young girl and described her. Soon after, DNA tests from hair and skin found under the fingernails of Sister Laura traced the murder to a troubled young girl who lived in the town.
The police soon tapped the cell phones of the three friends and overheard damning conversations, including one saying, “I have had my hair cut so the police will never recognize me.” “They will never catch us because they don’t know who we are,” reassured another.
One of the things that shocked police was that the girls, despite a few conversations concerning the police investigation, carried on as if nothing had happened. The girls sat for their exams, hung out in the piazza, and went clubbing on weekends.
When the police finally knocked on their door twenty-one days after the murder, the girls’ parents were stunned. For four hours of relentless questioning, the girls all calmly denied involvement until police showed them the transcripts of their recorded phone conversations.
Suddenly, two of the girls burst into tears, while another reportedly responded simply that it had all been a game. Newspapers and television shows discussed “the game” the girls were playing and attempted to put the crime into some form of societal context.
But the chief of the local public prosecutor’s office, Gianfranco Avella, said that while the girls had been charged with the nun’s murder, he remained unconvinced by their stated motive.
He didn’t believe it was a game.
After continuing his investigation, Avella discovered occult scribblings in the girls’ schoolbooks and journals. He found death metal CDs like those of Marilyn Manson, an avowed Satanist. Police put that information together with the date of the murder being the sixth day of the sixth month, one short of 666, the numeric symbol for the devil.
Confronted with this information, the girls from their prison cells began elaborating about their dark motives and about how far Satanism’s grip had reached into the small town.
Investigators revealed that in their numerous searches carried out in the homes of several middle class families, they discovered the existence of a surprisingly strong satanic subculture present in the children of good, stable, and well-respected families.
Many other girls had taken place in Bible burnings, blood oaths, and other rituals. From prison, Milena confirmed Avella’s worst fears. To his questions, she answered bluntly, “Satan had ordered us to kill.”
Vatican journalist Sandro Magister said in an interview shortly after the murder, “Satan is back. But in his way, he’s always been there. June 6, 2000, was another of his darkest and most devious days in Italy.” He said many of today’s youth are “lured by fashionable forms of Satanism.”
Investigators later learned that the three girls initially wanted to sacrifice a priest in their satanic rite—and their first choice was the pastor of the local church, Monsignor Ambrogio Balatti, but they feared that he might be too strong, so they sought to carry out their satanic blood ritual against Sister Laura.
Satanism and occultism had been a growing fad in Italy and throughout Europe, according to Monsignor Balatti. “Dress, music and some books contributed to the spread of such a tendency.… It found fertile ground in some because they were angry with God, perhaps because of personal problems, because of family troubles.”
After much questioning and investigation, the girls themselves told what they did to Sister Laura the night they made their macabre sacrifice to Satan. The three murderers lured the kindly nun into the alleyway when one of the girls jumped out, striking the nun in the back of the head with a stone to force her to the ground.
The girls forced the nun to kneel, as a gesture of submission, in compliance with the symbolic ritual. They then made use of two knives to carry out their rite. The girls tried to stab her 18 times (6+6+6, a symbolic number), but in the excitement, they failed to keep proper count and added an extra one.
The 60-year-old nun fought hard. But eventually her blood loss made fighting impossible.
And what did Sister Mainetti do as she was dying?
She didn’t cry to be spared. She didn’t scream at them or curse. She looked up to heaven, prayed for her murderers, and granted them her forgiveness. “Lord, forgive them,” were her last words as the girls viciously delivered the fatal wounds.
Bishop Alessandro Maggiolini called the grisly murder “the triumph of emptiness.” But the triumph, in the end, was God’s because this saintly woman prayed for the girl’s forgiveness even as she felt her life being taken from her.
This moment, in truth, was the triumph of faith over emptiness. This action by the victim in this murder gave the moment its meaning. According to recent news reports, the young murderers have shown signs of being repentant, partly due to Sister Mainetti’s heroic prayer as she was dying.
On August 9, 2001, Ambra had the case against her dismissed on the grounds of diminished responsibility and was sentenced to three years’ rehabilitation. Because of their age, the other two girls, Milena and Veronica, were given light sentences, despite being found guilty of first degree murder.
On November 6, 2005, the cause of beatification was opened for Sister Maria Laura Mainetti. Then Pope Benedict XVI said that Sister Laura, “with a total giving of self, sacrificed her life while praying for those who were attacking her.”
Monsignor Ambrogio Balatti observed, “After the time of sorrow and mourning, now is the moment of joy and light.”
The monsignor also spoke of a prophetic conversation he’d had with Sister Laura shortly before her death. “Lately, Sister Mary Laura confided in me her desire to give everything. She understood that many times we give ourselves to others, but we always keep something back for ourselves.
“She then said that only in martyrdom do we succeed in giving everything, even our own lives. Today I read her intuitions as a premonition. They were the Lord’s call, so that she would be prepared for any eventuality.”
If you’d like to read more stories like that, please check it out at Amazon. Faith Under Fire: Dramatic Stories of Christian Courage.