She helped prostitutes reclaim their dignity

Meet Adele Bonolis

praying for others—public domain

By Larry Peterson

She helped prostitutes reclaim a life of dignity

Adele Bonolis was born in Milan on August 14, 1909.  She was the youngest of four children and was born into a family where religion was not practiced. Still, the basic principles of it were adhered to. Her mom and dad were “believers” but non-participants in church activities, including the Mass. However, they did have their children baptized, and Adele was christened in the Basilica of St. Ambrogio.

Adele became a member of Women’s Youth, which was part of Catholic Action. This is where she received her primary education in the teachings of Catholicism. Adele attended classical high school, maintained good grades, and received her diploma. She then graduated from the Faculty of Letters and Philosophy at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart. After graduating, she became a high school religion teacher.

Her Father told he not to look at the prostitute—she kept on watching

A childhood encounter with a prostitute was a seminal moment in the life of Adele. She was with her dad and saw a prostitute going by. Her father told her not to look at the woman, but Adele did not hear him. She was mesmerized by the woman’s appearance and kept watching her. This was a turning point for Adele. It was that brief moment that helped her decide that once she grew up, she would help these women regain their lost dignity and become socially redeemed. She wanted to help give them a chance for a new life. She had no idea how this would be done.

Adele demonstrated determination and possessed unmistakable leadership qualities. In 1947, she began directing a summer camp for needy children in the poverty-stricken town of Lecco. Then she was put in charge of overseeing a parish level group of the Women’s Youth of Catholic Action. Her natural ability to coordinate and manage this group led  to her working in the diocesan center with women at risk and, before long, in the city of Milan. It is here that her plans to help the forgotten prostitutes begin to take shape.

The Merlin Law outlaws prostitution and brothels

In 1957, following the new Merlin Law, houses of prostitution were permitted to be closed down. Prostitution itself was not outlawed, but brothels were. One of these, located in Montano Lucino, became a reception center for former prostitutes. It was called the Maria Assunta Center for Female Orientation. That was followed by the Casa San Paolo opening in Vedano, the Casa Maria dell Grazie in Cibrone, and the Villa Salus in Lenno.

Adele’s compassion extended to other categories of women, such as former prisoners and the mentally ill. She believed that “our faith commits us to firmly believe in the value of the human person and that no one’s past can be sufficient to cancel this mysterious yet real value.”

She demanded a family atmosphere in all of her homes

Slowly but surely, volunteers sign on with her. But first, they must commit to the concept of “rehabilitating love, going through the reconstruction of the person.” In her home(s), she wants a family atmosphere where everyone helps each other.  She believed that this type of environment leads to the person’s rehabilitation and helps get them prepared for reintroduction back into society. At times there were up to thirty people staying in her homes.

She fought the cancer in her intestines as best she could

Adele began experiencing a decline in health, and it was discovered that she had an intestinal tumor. She continued in her ministry as long as she could, but eventually, her illness prevented her from continuing. She died on August 11, 1980. At her funeral, Monsignor Libero Tresoldi said, “Approaching Adele Bonolis, the impression was that of one who found in her a point of support, a place of refuge, a hope to proceed along the path. She had always been concerned with behaving like the sail of a boat looking for the breath of wind and letting itself be led by it.”

On January 21, 2021, Pope Francis declared Adele Bonolis a woman of “Heroic Virtue,” and she became Venerable Adele Bonolis. Her beatification now moves forward.

Copyright©Larry Peterson 2021 updated 2023