Shopping for a wedding gown at the St Rita monastery in Umbria
I can still hear the voice of Sister Maria Laura and remember her smiling face when she said, “No more cheesecake!” She was fitting me into a wedding gown in the most unexpected of places, the back room of an Umbrian monastery dedicated to St Rita of Cascia, which I had heard about after reading a short article in The New York Times.
In the 1950s women began donating their dresses out of solidarity and as an offering to St Rita, a 14th-century saint from a nearby village who wanted to become a nun, but who was married off by her parents at the age of 12 to a violent and abusive husband. After 18 years of marriage, he was murdered in a family feud and his two sons died of dysentery before they could avenge his death. St Rita then asked to be admitted to the Augustinian convent of St Mary Magdalene but was turned away because of the family’s violent reputation. She persisted in her request and was finally admitted to the convent at the age of 36. She is known as not only the patron saint of impossible causes but also of sterility, abuse victims, loneliness, marriage difficulties, parenthood, widows, the sick, bodily ills and wounds. She was canonised in 1900.
Sister Maria Laura became an Augustinian cloistered nun and entered the St Rita convent in the town of Cascia in 1993, just after she had been engaged to be married herself. After choosing instead to be a bride of Christ, she felt called in particular towards helping brides, believing that marriage was her vocation. Indeed her service of affording second-hand wedding dresses in the name of sobriety and to bring renewed focus on the sense of marriage has had profound effects.
With her earlier experience working as a stylist in her family’s tailoring business, she has the gift of refashioning donated wedding dresses for new brides, helping women find peace in the process of preparing for their weddings. Sister Maria Laura says that an average of three women visit the monastery each week, and between eight and ten per month leave with their dream dress.
Previously, when the dresses were donated they were destined for women with serious social and economic difficulties who had spent time at the convent. Now the dresses have become an important act of charity for others and the operation has grown and has its own warehouse. The contact between Sister Maria Laura and the bride originally took place only through a window connecting the enclosure to the outside world. The new chamber provides extra storage space for an increasing number of donated and in-demand dresses.
Sister Maria Laura makes the experience of choosing a gown full of love and joy, helping women who may not have known anything about St Rita or St Augustine, or who may be of a different faith, as she understands the meaning behind her own gown that she wears in devotion to the Augustinian order.
Being part of this religious order’s charity was quite a contrast from the combativeness I experienced in downtown Rome, where wedding dresses can cost from €4,000-8,000. In a boutique near Cornelia metro station, two women with smoke-stained teeth and straight black hair tried to assist my friend and me, drilling us with questions before kicking us out of the shop for speaking English to each other.
You couldn’t help but love Sister Maria Laura as she attempted to interpret my reactions to each dress and then scurry among over 300 dresses in the back to find a new style. She would bring them out one by one and experiment and advise on alterations. She’d create open backs with ribbons, suggest where to cut the neckline, and reassemble inner padding. There were several shades of designer bridal gowns in white, cream, champagne, gold and ivory to choose from, in any style imaginable thanks to the variety of women who have donated dresses. In return, many women return their dresses after their wedding in order to provide a similar opportunity to someone new.
The brides-to-be do not pay for the dress; rather the common practice is for recipients to provide the church with an appropriate donation. Sister Maria Laura has a certain creativity and willingness to help that makes her work a real blessing.
For me, in the fashion-conscious capital city, it had seemed a lost cause finding a suitable and affordable wedding dress. Appropriate then that I found one at the convent, as St Rita is the patron saint of impossible causes. It is evident that Sister Maria Laura feels a great calling in her work. “It gives me great joy to see a young woman who can fulfil her dream of love with a dress appropriate for the happiest day of her life,” she said.
A particularly special time to visit the town is the upcoming feast day of St Rita on 22 May, when there is a historical parade and the blessing of the roses. In the town one can also visit a large sanctuary dedicated to St Rita, built in the 20th century after her canonisation. In the basilica it is spectacular to see her body still intact in its glass tomb.
An appointment must be made in advance to visit the dress depot of the monastery at Viale S. Rita 13, Cascia, tel. 074376221, www.santaritadacascia.org.
This article first appeared in the May 2014 edition of Wanted in Rome