The whole trajectory of his life was changed, he says: “Everything I have I owe to Flora.” (Flora was also a witness at Zanelli and his wife’s marriage and assisted at the birth of the first of Zanelli’s two daughters in the '90s.)
An encounter with a pregnant woman with cancer was a pivotal episode in the first part of Flora’s career as a trained midwife, when she was in her early 20s. The sick woman was being pressured by doctors to abort, against her wishes.
Abortion was then illegal in Italy, and it was not uncommon for Italian women to travel to London to procure the procedure, which Flora was shocked to learn on a visit to England as a young adult. Abortion was legalized in Italy in 1978.
With Flora’s support, the woman carried to term and gave birth to a healthy little girl. Afterward, however, the mother was in the hospital and too ill to care for her, so she asked young Flora to take charge of the girl.
This baby girl, born in 1964, was the first of Flora’s many “adoptive” children.
After the first, more babies with no place to go began to come home from the hospital with her. The second child she took in was the fourth daughter of a woman who died during labor.
The third was a baby boy whose mother, a prostitute, had abandoned him at the hospital.
There was no plan or organization behind it, Flora said. “It all happened spontaneously at that time.”
She was then still living with her parents and older brother, who were surprisingly tolerant of her habit of acquiring children, she said, and would watch after them whenever she was working.
Word of Flora’s generosity spread; her mother once answered a call from the courthouse in Florence, over 45 miles away, asking if she would take a baby in need of a home.
After a few years, Flora realized that despite her family’s patience, it was time to give them back their privacy, so she created a separate entrance and living space in the attic of the house where she welcomed her first expectant mom in distress in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s. For a period, she let a young man with nowhere to go sleep on a cot in the kitchen.
Reflecting on her early life, Flora said she “was very lucky,” noting that “poverty did not take away the joy of this family.”
Flora’s father grew up an illiterate peasant farmer. He was conscripted to fight in World War I, and not long after entering, was captured and imprisoned. He later said what kept him alive in the work camp was the dream of one day having a family, including a dark-eyed daughter.
After his release, he was determined to be free – and not to work under any landowner. He taught himself to read and write, and with the help of the local priest, obtained a passport and a loan for the cost of a ticket on a steamer to the United States.
He worked and saved his money for 11 years. And when he returned to Italy, he bought his own land to farm on as a free man. This is the origin of Flora’s inherited property and house, built by her father.
Flora’s mother came from an upper-class family which disinherited her when she married Flora’s father. Together they had a son and Flora, the “dark-eyed girl” her father had dreamt of.
To Flora’s recollection, her parents never fought or raised their voices. The riches her family had were not material, she explained, but what they bequeathed her was the faith, liberty, and peace in the family.
Bethlehem House, as Flora’s several-acre property is called, sits three miles outside the Tuscan city of Arezzo. The narrow strip of land is bordered by a busy train track one side and a state road on the other.
Once a working farm, the property is now made up of lawns, flowerbeds, and paths, scattered between small buildings. Well-used children’s toys and games lay about.
These buildings, mostly small houses, were constructed by Flora in the 1970s, out of her spare time and money and with the help of volunteers. She would not take money from Church or state.
The houses were built to host women facing difficult pregnancies; women with no place to go and at risk of seeking an abortion. Many of these women, she said, had been thrown out by their families, or were working on the streets, when they came. She recalled that many of them showed up at her door with only a plastic bag in their hand.
Flora could give shelter to up to seven or eight women at a time. The young women, many of whom were of different races, could stay with her for as little or as long a time as they needed.
While the woman’s child was under school age, she would contribute to the little community through sharing in the chores and childcare. Later, she would take a job in the community, such as a house cleaner. Some part of the money she earned would go toward expenses at Bethlehem House and the rest she would be required to save for an eventual apartment of her own.
Flora even acted as matchmaker at times, Zanelli said, and though Flora herself never married, many of the young women under her care “left having found love.” Flora, who became like a mother to many of the women she helped, witnessed many marriages and was godmother at many Baptisms.
Flora’s approach in this work can be summed up in a small phrase she repeats like a motto: “Chi ha sbagliato va amato di più” – “Who has erred should be loved more.”
Flora was also a world traveler. In the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, she traveled alone to missionary areas around the globe. (When someone asks her how she was able to do it, she replies, “Providence.” She paid for everything from her own salary.)
She helped women and children in Egypt, China, Thailand, Bangladesh, and more. In 1980, she traveled to Cambodia and helped to deliver babies in the midst of the Cambodian-Vietnamese War.
The name “Bethlehem House” came from the first of Flora’s many visits to the Holy Land. It was in the cave where Jesus was born that she first heard a distinct call from God to give her life in service.
Bethlehem House, in its simple appearance, matches the origins of its name. “We stay faithful to the name, ‘Bethlehem,’ and Bethlehem has a cave, not a roof,” Flora said. Manger scenes and other statues of the Christ child can be found around the property.
The chapel is in the former stable, which was built beneath the family’s home. A simple wooden tabernacle sits along the back wall in a trough still filled with hay, a reminder of its original purpose – a container for the nourishment of its inhabitants.
Most of the “little houses,” as Flora calls them, have now been empty for about eight years, when they were discovered to have significant structural problems making them dangerous to inhabit.
She would like to one day fix or rebuild the houses, and again shelter women, but said this aspect of her ministry would begin again only with God’s will and in his timing.
The last two decades, with the shelter closed and her obstetric career completed, Flora has focused her time on teaching, writing, and speaking about the Catholic Church’s teachings on human sexuality, particularly as expressed in Humanae Vitae, Evangelii Gaudium, Pope St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, and other Church documents.
She also continues to teach couples and train instructors in Natural Family Planning, which she studied in Rome in the 1980s.
The community surrounding Bethlehem House, which helps her in these endeavors, was given the status of a public association of lay faithful in 2005, and is focused around prayer, study, and work.
Flora spoke about her conviction that one of today’s most important spiritual works of mercy is to instruct the ignorant. There is ignorance at all levels of the Church, she said, describing what she called a temptation to “embalm” Church doctrine, and like a taxidermied animal, to leave the outside intact while emptying the teaching of its substance.
To those who disagree with her, or try to tell her times have changed, Flora answers: “but the human person has not changed.”
Her day starts at around 5:30 a.m., when she goes to work in the yard before the worst of the day’s heat. Around 8 a.m. she returns inside for breakfast, then says morning prayer in the chapel. She spends the rest of the morning working on writing and correspondence.
Flora, who prays a rosary at least daily, explained that “the motor of all the work is prayer.”
Over the years, Flora’s work also included counseling women after an abortion, which she said leaves a deep wound, and often leads to terrible remorse. Those who are suffering from the wounds of sins such as abortion, prostitution, or contraception have even more need to be loved, listened to, and understood, she said.
She also witnessed the loss of babies in miscarriage or stillbirth. “Among the babies I helped to be born here, some I also accompanied to heaven.”
One of her desires for Bethlehem House is for it to be “a little university of love for the person.”
“In my life, not one woman has returned regretful for having welcomed life,” she said, estimating that she has helped three, or in some cases, four generations to be born.
“I have always seen so much joy when a baby is born, even if there are certain anxieties, struggles… at that moment, you forget,” she said.
This article was originally published on CNA Aug. 25, 2019.