Gianna Beretta Molla was born on the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, October 4, 1922, in Magenta, an Italian town near Milan. Her parents, devout Catholics and third-order Franciscans, had her baptized on October 11 in the Basilica of San Martino. They named her Giovanna Francesca.
Gianna was the 10th child born to the Berettas. Of the Beretta's four boys and four girls who survived childhood,Gianna was the second youngest. Having accepted the gift of faith from an early age, she received a solid Christian education from her parents. They taught her to view life as a gift from God, to trust in God's providence, and to believe in the power of prayer. Their deep devotion to St. Francis led Gianna's parents to encourage her to have compassion for the poor, appreciation for a simple lifestyle, and an attraction to the missions.
After the death of her parents, Gianna and her siblings returned to the house where she was born in Magenta. Viewing medicine as the career in which she could best help people in body and spirit, Gianna enrolled in medical school in November 1942. She took classes first in Milan and then in Pavia, where she graduated on November 30, 1949.
On December 8, 1954, Gianna was invited by newly ordained Fr. Lino Garavaglia, to attend his first Mass, which was to be celebrated in his home town of Mesero. Fr. Lino also had invited fellow Mesero native Pietro Molla, whom Gianna had met only in passing. An engineer and manager of a match factory in Ponte Nuovo, near Magenta, Pietro was a devout Catholic active in his parish and in the Catholic Action movement.
Pietro and Gianna were deeply impressed with one another. They began spending time together, growing in mutual admiration and attraction. By early 1955, Pietro had asked Gianna to marry him. They celebrated their engagement with their families on Easter Monday, April 11, 1955. Gianna's brother, Fr. Giuseppe, celebrated a Mass for the occasion at the Canossian Sisters' small church in Magenta.
Gianna and Pietro were married on September 24, 1955, in the Basilica of San Martino in Magenta. They settled in the village of Ponte Nuovo, in a cozy villa provided by Pietro's company. The villa was only a few paces from the little church of Our Lady of Good Counsel where Gianna prayed and attended daily Mass.
Gianna was a happy wife and the Lord soon fulfilled her desire to become the mother of several children: Pierluigi, born on November 19, 1956, Maria Zita, born on December 11, 1957, and Laura, born on July 19, 1959. All were born in her home in Ponte Nuovo.
In September 1961, after suffering two miscarriages, Gianna was expecting another child. Doctors discovered a large fibroid, a benign tumor, in her uterus. The only sure way to save Gianna's life was to remove the fibroid, her unborn child, and her uterus - an option that would mean Gianna could not bear more children. A second option was to remove the fibroid and her unborn child but not her uterus, thus allowing Gianna a chance to conceive again. The third and riskiest option was to remove only the fibroid and leave Gianna's unborn child in her womb, in an attempt to save the child's life.
As a physician, Gianna knew the risks associated with the third option but she chose it anyway. Placing her trust in God, she implored the surgeon to save her baby.
Gianna underwent immediate surgery at the San Gerardo Hospital in Monza, where the surgeon removed the fibroid and sent her home after a short hospital stay. Grateful to God, Gianna resumed her medical work and care for her children. Facing even more months of a high-risk pregnancy, she prayed fervently that she might be spared the sacrifice of her life and that God would allow her to give birth to a healthy baby.
Gianna knew the delivery would be difficult. Yet she firmly believed that her unborn child had the same right to life as her other three children. Relying on God and her family to watch over her children, Gianna implored her husband to protect the life of her baby despite the painful consequences that might follow. As Pietro later recalled, Gianna spoke "in a steady but serene tone, having a confident expression I will never forget." She told him, "If you have to decide between me and the baby, do not hesitate. Choose - and I require it - the baby. Save the baby."
On April 20, 1962, the afternoon of Good Friday, Gianna returned to the hospital in Monza to attempt natural childbirth, a less risky option for a woman with her condition. It did not work. So the next morning, on Holy Saturday, doctors made the delivery by Cesarean Section. It was a healthy baby girl who would be named Gianna Emanuela.
A few hours after her baby's birth, Gianna developed an extremely high fever and abdominal pain due to septic peritonitis. Her sharing in Christ's passion on Calvary had begun.
In spite of all treatments, Gianna's condition worsened each day. Her slow agony was punctuated by sad farewells to her husband, her newborn daughter, and her family. She wanted to receive Jesus in the Eucharist, yet her uncontrollable vomiting allowed her to receive only part of the Host on her lips.
As she had requested, Gianna returned to her home in Ponte Nuovo at dawn on Saturday, April 28. She died at 8 a.m. She was 39 years old.
Word of Gianna's sacrifice and sanctity spread rapidly after her death. Her faith-filled life and maternal love, crowned by her final, heroic choice, led to her beatification by Pope John Paul II on April 24, 1994, when he referred to Gianna as "Mater Familiae" (mother of a family). The day after she was beatified, the Holy Father highlighted the importance of Gianna's pro-life witness in an address to pilgrims gathered in the Pope Paul VI room. "Her testimony is heroic," he said, "a true hymn to life, in violent contrast with a certain mentality pervasive today! May her sacrifice inspire courage in those who participate in the movement for life, in order that each human being's inviolable dignity be recognized, from birth to a natural death, as a foremost and fundamental value in respect to every other human and social right."
Ten years later, on May 16, 2004, Pope John Paul II proclaimed Gianna a saint. Her canonization and that of five other saints took place in St. Peter's Square before some 100,000 pilgrims. In attendance were Gianna's husband, children, granddaughter, siblings, medical patients, and friends.