Magdalena di Canossa was born on March 1, 1774 in Verona, Italy to the Marquis Ottavio di Canossa and Teresa Szluha; a Hungarian countess. Her parent’s first children died soon after birth. She was born after Laura Maria. She was baptized on March 2, 1774.
Her mother later gave birth to another son who died right after the birth. In 1776 Boniface was born and then two additional girls, Rosa and Leonora. In 1779, her father died in an accident while on vacation in Grezzano. In 1781, her mother left their palace and married the widower Marquis Odoardo Zanetti from Mantua. The children were placed under the guardianship of their uncle Girolamo.
From May 2, 1791, she spent ten months in a Carmelite convent but discerned that this was not her vocation and returned home. She undertook the running of her large estate. In 1797, Napoleon was a guest at their palace where she received him; he returned as a guest twice more in 1805 and 1807.
Canossa saw how the poor people in her town suffered and grew worse due to all the social upheavals because of the invasions of the French forces and the opposing forces of the Austrian Empire which would gain control of Verona. This encouraged her to desire to servethe unfortunate. Canossa studied under the Carmelites in Trent and then at Conegliano.
Using her inheritance she began charitable work for the poor and sick, in hospitals and in their homes, and also among abandoned girls. On April 1, 1808 she was given an abandoned convent where she took in two poor girls from the slum of the San Zeno neighborhood to care for them and provide them with an adequate education. One month later on May 8, she moved out of her palace and moved into what is now the Saint Joseph Convent where other women soon joined her and formed the Canossian Daughters. In May 1810, the Servants of God Father Antonio Angelo and Brother Marco Antonio Cavanis invited her to Venice for collaboration. In the meantime, her uncle Girolamo died in July 1814, entrusting his motherless son Carlino to her care.
Canossa wanted the pope to legitimize her work by granting formal recognition to the order. She decided to meet with Pope Pius VII in Genoa in 1815 and arrived in Milan on May 14 to learn that the pope had left for Rome. She reached the pope on May 23 at Piacenza. She tried to meet with the Pope, but she lost her courage. The pope noticed and didn’t wish to continue the meeting and told Canossa to follow the usual protocol and send the Rule and other documents to Roman authorities. She tried again some hours later and was again brought before Pius VII who gave her the same vague answer. This hurt her feelings because she thought the meeting was too formal with a lack of concrete results.
The new congregation started to care for poor children and to serve in the hospitals. Once word of their work spread, the order was requested to start new communities in other cities of the region. Soon there were convents of the religious established in Venice, Milan, Bergamo, and Trent. In 1824, she travelled to Rovato where she worked with Annunciata Astoria Cocchetti. Magdalene drew up a Rule for the congregation, and it received pontifical approval from Pope Leo XII on December 23, 1828.
Magdalene wanted to provide boys with the same care her religious sisters were providing to girls. She invited the priest Francesco Luzzi to open a small chapel adjacent to the sisters’ convent of Santa Lucia in Venice. He opened this house on May 23, 1831. In 1833, the priest saw two laymen join him, Giuseppe Carsana and Benedetto Belloni, and who later took over the work of the place when Luzzi left to become a Carmelite friar. The men’s order were given a religious habit in 1860 from the Patriarch of Venice, Angelo Francesco Ramazzotti, and were given a Rule in 1897 from Domenico Agostini.
Canossa maintained a partnership with Leopoldina Naudet. Though they got along, they had disagreements about their method. They dissolved their partnership around 1816. Canossa also tried to establish a male religious order with Antonio Provolo in the 1820s but was unsuccessful. It was in February 1820 that she first met Antonio Rosmini and Rosmini’s sister Margherita became a close friend of Canossa and joined her order on 2 October 1824.
The death of Pius VII in 1823 halted work in the recognition of her order and she was upset that approval had not been granted since her meeting with the pope less than a decade before. Canossa believed she would have better luck with his successor Pope Leo XII and in September 1828 left to go to Rome to request of him the formal approval needed. She stopped over at Coriano to visit Maria Elisabetta Renzi and stopped at Loreto before reaching Rome in November. In the audience with the pope he asked her to present a shorter version of the Rule so that his approval could come quicker; he also appointed a commission that the Cardinal Carlo Odescalchi led to assess the rule and the request. This led to Leo XII granting approval for the order just before Christmas. In 1833 she was profoundly affected by the death of Margherita Rosmini who was a close friend.
In 1834, she organized the Spiritual Exercises for her order in Verona before setting off for Venice and returning to Verona in May. That autumn she went to Bergamo and then to Milan. Canossa died on April 10, 1835, after a period of ill.
The cause for her canonization opened under Pope Pius IX on February 15, 1877. She became titled a Servant of God. Pope Pius XI named her Venerable on January 6, 1927. Pope Pius XII beatified her on 7 December 7, 1941.
Her beatification depended upon a miracle attributed to her intercession with one being investigated in 1955. On July 1, 1987, when a medical panel approved it, as did the theologians on 16 October 1987 and the members of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints on 17 November 1987. Pope John Paul II approved this miracle on 11 December 11, 1987, and presided over Canossa’s canonization in Saint Peter’s Square on 2 October 1988.