Photo: A picture of Lucia Mantione by her tombstone in Montedoro’s cemetery. Photograph: Lorenzo Tondo/The Guardian
The Catholic church had denied 13-year-old girl sexually assaulted and killed in 1955 a funeral due to arcane rule whereby priests could forbid funerals in cases of violent death.
There had never been so many people at a funeral in the history of Montedoro, a village suspended in time among wheat fields and abandoned sulphur mines in central Sicily.
Its 1,500 inhabitants had waited for this moment for more than half a century, and on Wednesday gathered in hundreds in solemn prayer in the village church around a small white coffin.
Inside were the remains of Lucia Mantione, a 13-year-old girl who was sexually assaulted and murdered in 1955 and for whom the Catholic church for 66 years, in its application of an arcane principle, had forbidden a funeral.
“This is the day of Lucia’s redemption and the redemption of Montedoro,” said Rosa Alba, 73, who knew Lucia as a child and for years led the battle to persuade the church to recognise its error and allow the girl’s funeral in the village.
It was a cold afternoon on 6 January 1955 when Lucia, nicknamed Luciedda, left her home to buy a box of matches. Not seeing her return, her mother searched for her for hours, calling for her in the streets and the countryside.Advertisementhttps://e1ae46612f850c839edf7308b1fb09d2.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
“I remember that day like it was yesterday,” said Alba. “In a second, everyone knew in town. ‘Lucia is missing,’ they cried. I was terrified.”
Lucia never returned. Her body was found on 9 January in a farmhouse 1km from Montedoro. The autopsy confirmed she had been strangled while fighting off her assailant. That evening, her father, a sulphur miner, knocked on the door of Don Vito Alfano, the parish priest of Montedoro, to arrange Lucia’s funeral. The priest refused, citing a Catholic law that forbade funerals for those who died a “violent death”.
“It was an old principle that was applied mainly to people who committed suicide,” said Father Francesco Stabile, a former professor of theology at the University of Palermo and expert in church history. “However, some priests extended this principle to those who were killed violently. There are some examples of this application in the 19th century. The absurd idea behind it was that if you were killed somehow you had done something wrong. Some priests believed that a violent death distanced that person from the religious community.”
For some weeks the police investigated the crime, interviewing villagers and attempting to reconstruct Lucia’s final hours, but many were afraid to speak. At first, the investigation was centred on an elderly resident with a criminal record, a path that was soon abandoned. The suspicion was that Lucia’s killer was a wealthy aristocrat who, in Italy’s postwar years, could count on support from the Mafia.
Lucia was given a modest burial without a funeral in a small plot in Montedoro’s cemetery. The Italian authorities and the church had in effect closed the case on the girl’s death, but the villagers never forgot.
“Lucia’s story was passed down through the generations,” said Renzo Bufalino, 40, the mayor of Montedoro. “As kids, they’d take us to the cemetery to place fresh flowers on Lucia’s grave. Her memory wasn’t forgotten, not even for those who never knew her.”
A few years ago, Federico and Calogero Messana, two brothers who were peers of Lucia’s, opened a blog in remembrance of her and began collecting a series of articles and statements from the time of her disappearance. Federico wrote a long letter to the bishop of the province, Caltanissetta, asking him to intervene in favour of granting Lucia the proper religious burial she had been denied. “He apologised for what had happened back then and said that he’d do everything he could to bring the case to the attention of his superiors.”
The turning point came recently when prosecutors in Caltanissetta reopened the case, exhuming Lucia’s body and attempting to extract DNA. According to rumours, objects were found at the scene of the crime that could have contained traces of the killer’s DNA, even if it seemed unlikely after so much time.
The people of Montedoro wasted no time in seizing the moment, pressuring the church after close to seven decades to grant the girl a proper funeral. On Wednesday, the first person to lay hands on Lucia’s coffin was Maria Lucia Mantione, Lucia’s 64-year-old niece and one of her few remaining relatives. She bears her name, even if she never knew her, and had come to Montedoro from the northern Italian city of Treviso to attend the funeral.
“You’re here at last, dear aunt,” Maria said, crying, while clinging to the girl’s coffin. “I never imagined I’d find you.”
“My father, who was Lucia’s brother, suffered enormously,” she said. “Because of their pain, they left Montedoro and immigrated north. But every day, until they died, they spoke about Lucia. I never imagined I’d be here 66 years later for her funeral.”
Hundreds of people waited for Lucia’s coffin, which was brought forth from the church by Maria and three other women, who were met with resounding applause.
“This funeral will go down in our history,” said Bufalino.
The news made headlines in Italy and has become a symbol for the struggle for justice and against religious chauvinism, but also as a consciousness-raising moment for violence against women and children.
According to a Eures report, in 2020 a woman was killed in Italy every three days, many of whom were also sexually abused.
“Today, in Montedoro, we remember not only Lucia, but all victims of femicide in Italy,” said Bufalino. “All women who have been raped and sexually abused. All women, like Lucia, whose cries for justice have gone unheard for far too long.”