Julia and the Gypsies

Florence’s Protestant (or English) Cemetery used to sit outside the city walls–unsanctified ground. I like to think it was created out of an ancient kitchen midden, which might explain its peculiar shape–low at the entrance and rising at one end to a rather high peak–with the traffic of Piazzale Donatello speeding by on either side like a river of Dis. The cemetery’s effect of existing outside normal time is accentuated by its tall swaying cypress and its community of graves which march silently up the hill, carrying their peaked, white roofs.

Actually the cemetery wasn’t organized or run by anyone remotely English until quite recently. The Swiss began it in the early 1827 and still maintain it. The English (and American) element was introduced by its many Protestant “communicants” who were buried there. Recently, though, a true daughter of British soil has come to care for it: Sister Julia Holloway, certainly British, by way of an academic stint in the United States, and with many laudable British literary credits to her name–for instance, editing with her father a recent Penguin edition of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s feminist verse poem Aurora Leigh (1996), not to mention Sister Julia’s many books about medieval life and saintly women. With her cheery greeting, and smiling face under a simple white wimple, she does rather resemble a living, breathing saint, a kindly benefactress.

I’ve brought groups of students to the cemetery to write among the graves. I’ve walked among the stones, puzzling names and dates, inspired, bemused, ultimately marveling at the calm height above the speeding traffic. In fact I’ve visited so often that I like to think of myself as a regular: someone who brings food (usually a broiled chicken from Standa) to share with Sister Julia and her lovely, learned Italian assistant, likewise a Catholic nun, though you’d never guess it, passing her on the street.

About six years ago, I happened to come at a time of crisis: Julia was ministering to a young woman from the Roma community, a person we’d call in the U.S., a gypsy. Since I don’t remember her name, I’ll call her Lelia. Lelia had a terrible toothache, so intense that she could barely stand for the dizziness and pain. Of course, she had no transportation, and very little money. That afternoon, Julia had taken her by bus to the main Florentine hospital in the western hills, Carregi, where doctors had proscribed treatment and medication. As Julia and I sat down to our meal–my chicken, Julia’s pesto pasta and salad and bread–Julia kept leaving to check on Lelia, who now was nursing her baby upstairs in a tiny sleeping room. I too became worried about the baby, its gypsy mother, and her agony of the infected tooth.

In my comfortable well-regulated Minnesota life, I occasionally pass someone who’s obviously in great need. The operable word here is “pass.” Yes, I regularly send money to the local Salvation Army and the international Red Cross; I support many environmental organizations, but I’ve rarely stopped to help a stranger. Julia and her assistant have what I like to think is a far more Christian response. Far from being afraid of the Roma who beg throughout Florence, they befriend them.

The result, over the years, has expanded in astonishing ways: Julia makes cradles for the Roma babies. She and her assistant have created a simple reading program to teach the Roma the alphabet and the rudiments of written Italian. And with gentle but unwavering persistence, Julia has found ways to employ the Roma in cleaning and repairing the graves’ soft stone (often the local grey pietra dura), the ironwork about the graves, and in clearing away the grounds and planting iris.

Yes, I still clutch my purse to my chest when walking the streets of Florence, but as I enter the Standa, I speak to a gypsy woman crouched at the exit. “Dopo,” I say with a nod and a smile, meaning “after.” After I’ve done my shopping and acquired some change, I will bring her some coins. Her smile in return belongs to Sister Julia and the cemetery which has offered consolation to bereaved outsiders for several centuries, and now, in the parlance of modern ministry, has an outreach truly astonishing, fueled by two intensely concerned and educated women, outsiders themselves.

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