Saint of the Day – 24 January – Blessed Paola Gambara Costa TOSF (1463-1515) a Countess and member of the Third Order of St Francis, Laywoman, mother, widow, apostle of the poor and sick – born on 3 March 1463 in Verola Alghise (modern Verolanuova), Brescia, Duchy of Milan (in modern Lombardy, Italy) and died on 24 January 1515 in Binaco, Duchy of Milan (in modern Lombardy, Italy) of a fever. Patronages – Widows, Married couples, Franciscan tertiaries, difficult marriages, victims of adultery. Additional memorial – 23 January in Brescia.
Paola Gambara Costa was born on 3 March 1463 in Brescia as the first of seven children to the nobles Giampaolo Gambara and Taddea Caterina Martinengo.
In her childhood she delighted in spiritual reading and reflection on the Gospel and harboured an ardent desire to become a nun later in life. But this dream was cut short when her parents decided to arrange her marriage to Count Lodovico Antonio Costa – the Lord of Benasco – and she saw this as the will of God manifesting itself and so complied with the wishes of her parents. The marriage came about after Count Bongiovanni Costa visited her parents and was struck with her virtue and so wanted her as his nephew Lodovico Antonio’s wife. Her decision to become a nun worried the count who sent her to Blessed Angelo Carletti – a Franciscan priest – who persuaded her that marriage was a call from God to embrace a different kind of life still in accordance with Christian values.
The pair married in autumn 1485 and the pair travelled to the small Benasco province for the ensuring celebrations. She endured her new husband’s expensive tastes, seeing it as her role to be faithful to him, even if she did not live the excessively luxurious life herself.
Her confessor around this time was Father Crescenzio Morra from Bene though she later reconnected with Carletti who became her friend and spiritual advisor as well as a confessor. Carletti kept her on the path of virtue and advised her to enrol in the Third Order of Saint Francis, while learning to appreciate the poor and to detest the lavishness of the secular world. She joined in 1491 with the permission of her husband. Gambara often deprived herself of food in order to bring it to the sick and on one occasion took off her shoes and gave it to an old woman who was struggling barefoot through the snow.
In 1488 she gave birth to her sole child Giovanni Francesco and named him in honour of Saint Francis of Assisi. To mark this occasion, she managed to persuade her husband to distribute large amounts of food to the poor of their area.
But her excessive charitable works and almsgiving soon vexed her husband, who reproached her for her conduct and ridiculed her in front of their servants and the servants followed their master’s example and joined in ridiculing their mistress.
Costa soon acquired a mistress – the daughter of the Podestà of Carrù – and he allowed her to live in the castle in 1494 even though Paola resided there. In 1495 her son left for Chieri for his education and Father Carletti died on 11 April 1495. She attended his funeral in Cuneo – he had died at the convent of Sant’Antonio where he had fallen ill.
In 1500 she reunited with her parents and siblings when she returned to her hometown on a brief visit. In 1504 her late husband’s mistress fell ill with abdominal pains and it was Paola who comforted her and forgave her as she died. Also in 1504 her son – now a page – returned to his home.
Her husband later repented and approved her good works and also consented to her wearing the habit of her order in public. Costa became ill in 1504 and she began to tend to him. The two travelled to Cuneo to ask for the intercession of her former confessor Carletti and when her husband was healed, attributed the healing to him – Costa celebrated a banquet in commemoration of this and undertook a pilgrimage to the priest’s grave in thanksgiving with his wife at his side. This conversion was short-lived however, for her husband died not long after in 1504.
On 14 January 1515 she was struck with an extreme fever that caused her great pain and she died on 24 January 1515 in the town of Binasco in Milan after having confessed and received the Eucharist for the final time.
Blessed Paola was buried in a church outside the walls of convent of Rocchetta that she had helped re-build. When the church was destroyed in 1536 during a war between Francis I and Charles V, Paola’s body was re-interred in the nearby castle and later enshrined in a chapel built by the Counts of Costa in the Franciscan monastery of Bene Vagienna.
Her Beatification received formal ratification on 14 August 1845 once Pope Gregory XVI issued a decree that recognised that there existed an enduring and longstanding local ‘cultus’.