The story of  Modesta, homeless woman who died without any help in Rome the 31rd January 1983

Very little is known about Modesta Valenti. At the end of 1982, some young members of Sant’Egidio met her near the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. She was timidly begging, nearly hiding herself. “Ha mica qualcosa da darmi” (Do you have anything to give me, by chance?) she used to say in her native Friuli dialect. The bond of friendship, born in those cold months (made of gestures rather than words: a hot cappuccino or a lunch taken together), little by little helped to reveal some details about her past. She came from Trieste, where she was born in 1912. She spoke with nostalgia about a flat (a nice ‘quartin’ she used to say) which she lived in. She bore the scars of a painful experience: to be in a mental hospital for some time. That was a memory which emerged piecemeal, sketchily, when she told her story recalling that she was traumatized by the treatment she received, perhaps electroshock therapy.

We don’t know what drove her to leave Trieste in order to go to Rome, where she didn’t know anyone and ended up living on the street. To those who ask her she used to answer that she had come because the Pope lives in Rome and she wanted to meet him. And she liked to walk to St Peter Square. Once she could visit the Basilica too, escorted by a friend from the Community. It was one of her rare moments of joy and serenity. In a sweat manner, yet with a veil of sadness, she used to talk about a train trip she wanted to take, maybe to go back to Trieste.

On the morning of 31st January 1983, after a night spent out in the cold at Termini Railway Station, near platform one, Modesta felt very sick. Some passers-by called an ambulance. But the ambulance crew refused to assist her because she had lice. For nearly four hours, different hospitals negotiated about her admission. Meanwhile Modesta remained on the ground, suffering. When eventually a new ambulance came, she had passed away.

Her friends of the Community took care of her after her death. It was not a simple task. Her corpse had been seized by judicial authority: it took the Community, her only family, eleven months to get it back. The funeral was celebrated in Sant’Egidio church on 28th December 1983, on the Feast of the Holy Innocents.

The Community was deeply touched by the story of that vulnerable woman, tried by life, dead because of rejection, abandonment, and contempt. It was just like a plot against her, to let her die alone. In her vicissitudes there was a sort of concentration of different aspects of poverty and neglect. They made her a ‘martyr of indifference’. Some poor who live on the street identify with her and her affliction. They call her ‘Saint Modesta’ and seek understanding and protection from her.

That’s why every year, on the anniversary of her death, the Community of Sant’Egidio celebrates the memory of Modesta and all the homeless people who died for the harshness of life on the street. During the celebration in Santa Maria in Trastevere, and in other churches in Rome, in Italy and in other countries, the departed friends’ names are mentioned one by one. A candle is lit while each name is mentioned. It’s a very touching moment: everybody knows that their names, kept in God’s heart, will never be forgotten by the Community that cherishes every story and every face just like a treasure.