We became acquainted with Filomena in 1973. She lived in the old neighbourhood of Trastevere in the heart of Rome, very close to the Church of Sant’Egidio where the Community began to gather to pray. Filomena, who was always looking for genuine friendship with people and wore a scarf around her hair, always made herself known because of her spontaneous friendly attitude. Since she was alone, she spent her days looking for company, for someone to talk with. The “low” housing quarter was too narrow and empty for her vivacious personality and so Filomena usually went out of the house early and wandered around the small streets in Trastevere where everyone knew her.
When the Sant’Egidio monastery, closed for some years, reopened and became full of youngsters of the Community, Filomena would pop in out of curiosity. She found a warm and friendly welcome there so she started to come regularly every day to say hello. She was one of the first elderly ladies we got to know.
Filomena was a bit absent minded. Frequently she couldn’t find her things, particularly her social security booklet that she hid carefully because her entire existence and independence depended on it. So often she would come to Sant’Egidio very anxious asking for help to find her booklet. Besides us, the store owners, neighbours represented for her a useful network of protection for this pleasant old lady a bit absent minded who, despite her difficulties due to her age could nevertheless continue to carry out a normal existence.
Filomena’s vitality was really exuberant. She was able to tell many stories about the neighbourhood and its old inhabitants. She knew a wide repertoire of songs and Roman sayings which she would sing with a great powerful voice. It was pleasant to talk to her and Filomena was always able to steel some time away from her listeners.
One day Filomena did not ring at Sant’Egidio’s door and it was impossible to find her at home. She was hospitalised in the Cronic Ward of a hospital because her nephews who didn’t live in Rome thought this to be the most secure solution for her since she “was not anymore in her right mind.” When we were able to find her we saw before us a different person. She didn’t talk, she couldn’t recognise anyone, she just cried and waned. They had cut her hair which were thick beforehand and she was proud of them. She was ashamed of this and she covered her face in order to hide her humiliation. In a few days time she let herself die without allowing us to do everything possible to discharge her so she could begin again her normal life.
Then we understood the danger of alienating someone from her own environment and the negative effects of institutionalisation especially if it’s against one’s will.