Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Princess Maria Felicita of Savoy

One of the little known but personally outstanding royals of the House of Savoy was Princess Maria Felicita. In political terms she had little to know impact. She was never married, had no children and yet she was an outstanding figure of charity and piety who was beloved by many. She was born in Turin, in the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia, on March 19, 1730 the third daughter of King Charles Emanuel III. Her mother, Princess Polyxena von Hesse-Rotenburg died in 1735 when Maria Felicita was only four. Two years later King Charles Emanuel married a third time to Princess Elisabeth Therese of Lorraine (sister of Holy Roman Emperor Francis I) who acted as mother to Princess Maria Felicita until she died after a traumatic childbirth in 1741. Although she was deprived of a mother figure and her father was most known for his military exploits, Princess Maria Felicita grew up in very religious surroundings. Her older sister, Princess Maria Luisa, became a nun and all three of the sisters were very devoted to their faith.

There were, of course, efforts to arrange suitable marriages for the girls but none ever worked out and Princess Maria Felicita grew up unmarried and remained single throughout her life. In the absence of a husband or children she devoted herself almost totally to the service of God and her countrymen. She became widely known for her humble piety and staunch support of the Church. She sought to be the best Christian she could be and sought to surround herself with holy people. One priest who was gaining a great reputation for his preaching skills and zeal for the faith was Father Giovanni Battista Canavera. Princess Maria Felicita chose him to be her confessor and the devout priest helped to guide her toward ways in which she could be of the most help, in ways suited to her particular talents. Charity was always important to the Princess and, with the advice of her father confessor, she began to take a particular interest in the widows and unmarried ladies who were in need, whether impoverished aristocrats or from the middle class.

Inspired by the call to charity of her Catholic faith, Princess Maria Felicita decided to take action and establish an institution where these women could be cared for and better themselves under the protection of the Royal House of Savoy. So, in 1786, she founded the “Convitto per donne nubili e vedove”, a boarding school for widows and unmarried ladies in Turin which is still in operation today (now sometimes called the ‘Happiness School Princess Savoy’). Some sources refer to this as a convent but it is not a religious house even though religion, of course, has always played a large part in the life of the women staying there. The French Revolution had produced many widows and women in need and many refugees had fled to Piedmont for safety. Princess Maria Felicita did what she could for these unfortunates but the Savoy themselves were soon engulfed in conflict when the First French Republic declared war on Piedmont-Sardinia on December 6, 1798. By this time her nephew, Charles Emanuel IV, was King who was also a very religious man and bitter opposed to the French Revolution.

Naturally, the Princess was also horrified by the events in France, particularly the war against the Catholic Church and the revolution soon came to Piedmont-Sardinia. The Royal Family was forced to evacuate Turin and relocate, first to Sardinia and then to the Italian peninsula. Princess Maria Felicita traveled with her nephew and the rest of the Royal Family during these troubled times and she continued to do what she could to ease the suffering of the victims of the upheaval and to support the Church. She had lived long enough to lose all of her siblings save the Duke of Chablais before she herself died in Rome on May 13, 1801. She was buried in Turin, unattached, but loved and respected as a woman of prayer, charity and deep and devoted faith.

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