The Unknown Relic of St. John Paul II

Convent Enshrines Vest Worn By Pontiff During Assassination Attempt in 1981

On May 13, 1981, Anna Stanghellini, a nurse at the “Agostino Gemelli” Hospital, was working, as she did every day, in the surgery department. She didn’t know that at 5:19 pm that day Mehmet Ali Agca attempted to assassinate Pope John Paul II. She learned what happened in Saint Peter’s Square when the ambulance arrived at the hospital with the gravely wounded Pope on board.

The operating room was ready and, at 5:55 pm, doctors under the guidance of Professor Francesco Crucitti, were able to begin the operation. However, first it was necessary undress the Pope and, in order to not lose precious time, his cotton vest was cut and thrown on the floor along with the gauze soaked with blood. Seeing the vest, the nurse did not feel she should throw it away. First she wrapped it in a clean gauze, then in a white hand towel and put it in her locker, without saying anything to anyone. She kept it at home until the year 2000, when she decided to give this priceless gift to the Provincial House of the Sisters of Charity of Saint Vincent of Paul.

Anna Stanghellini was linked to the order for a long time. In 1964, she began the novitiate of the Sisters of Charity, but then realized that it was not her vocation and chose the nursing profession. However, she kept in close contact with the Sisters . Upon her retirement in 1996, she decided to live near their Provincial House, where she died in 2004.

The former Provincial, Sister Beatrice, realized immediately the value of the gift received from a simple nurse from Gemelli Hospital, because she was convinced that one day that vest, stained with blood, would become a true relic of Pope John Paul II. To better preserve the papal vest, it was place behind glass case and framed.

After John Paul II’s death, Sister Beatrice decided to show the memento of the Pope to Archbishop Piero Marini, the then Master of Pontifical Liturgical Celebrations. The prelate had no doubts of its authencity. Moreover, the Sisters were in possession of Stanghellini’s written statement, attesting to the authenticity of the garment. As a precaution, however, Archbishop Marini asked the Provincial to leave the vest at the Vatican. Sister Beatrice did so with great pain, because she was convinced that she would never recover that precious memento. However, her fears were abated. A few days later, the Master of Ceremonies called her, and asked her to pick up the papal vest.

May 1, 2011 was a special day for the Sisters of the Provincial House on via Francesco Albergotti. The memento of John Paul II became a relic of the new Blessed. The Blessed’s relic was placed in one of the small side altars of the large chapel of the House. When the Sister who accompanied me opened the door of the altar, decorated with an image of the founder of the Sisters of Charity, I was very moved: behind the glass could be seen the vest of the attack, cut on both sides, with dark blood stains at the level of the abdomen (in the background there are three holes, which indicates that the vest was folded when it was pierced by the bullet fired by Ali Agca’s pistol), and red stains of disinfectant. Clearly visible on the collar are the initials “JP” embroidered with red thread.

Around the vest the Sisters have placed newspaper clippings with images of John Paul II at the moment of the attack, in the hospital bed after the surgical intervention, with the attacker, Ali Agca, and with nurse Anna Stanghellini. There  were also the written statements of the nurse, of the Superior of the House, and of Monsignor Peter B. Wells, adviser in the Secretariat of State, certifying the authenticity of the relics. Today, the former Provincial House of the Sisters of Charity at Rome has become the “Regina Mundi” House, where the elderly and sick religious reside. However, the chapel has become today one of Saint John Paul II’s shrines.

When I asked Sister Amelia, the Superior of the House, what it means to the community to have such a relic, she answered: “It’s a gift and a responsibility. It’s a gift because we feel honoured to be the custodians of such a precious and significant relic of the Holy Father; a responsibility because we have made ourselves available to receive all the people who come here to pray.”

Many people come to the “Regina Mundi” House, particularly on Wednesday. Pilgrims who take part in the General Audience go afterwards to via Francesco Albergotti to pray before St. John Paul II’s relic, “signed” with his blood shed in Saint Peter’s Square during the attack on his life.  

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