One of the most charming legends in Dominican hagiography is that of little Imelda, who died of love on her first Communion day, and who is, by this happy circumstance, patroness of all first communicants.
Tradition says that Imelda was the daughter of Count Egano Lambertini of Bologna. Her family was famous for its many religious, including a Dominican preacher, a Franciscan mother foundress, and an aunt of Imelda’s who had founded a convent of strict observance in Bologna.
Imelda was a delicate child, petted and favored by her family, and it was no surprise that she should be religious by nature. She learned to read from the Psalter, and early devoted herself to attending Mass and Compline at the Dominican church. Her mother taught her to sew and cook for the poor, and went with her on errands of charity. When Imelda was nine, she asked to be allowed to go to the Dominicans at Val di Pietra. She was the only child of a couple old enough not to hope for any more children; it was a wrench to let her go. However, they took her to the convent and gave her to God with willing, if sorrowing, hearts.
Imelda’s status in the convent is hard to discern. She wore the habit, followed the exercises of the house as much as she was allowed to, and longed for the day when she would be old enough to join them in the two things she envied most–the midnight Office and the reception of Holy Eucharist. Her age barred her from both. She picked up the Divine Office from hearing the sisters chant, and meditated as well as she could.
It was a lonely life for the little girl of nine, and, like many another lonely child, she imagined playmates for herself–with this one difference–her playmates were saints. She was especially fond of Saint Agnes, the martyr, who was little older than Imelda herself. Often she read about her from the large illuminated books in the library, and one day Agnes came in a vision to see her. Imelda was delighted. Shut away from participation in adult devotions, she had found a contemporary who could tell her about the things she most wanted to know. Agnes came often after this, and they talked of heavenly things.
Her first Christmas in the convent brought only sorrow to Imelda. She had been hoping that the sisters would relent and allow her to receive Communion with them, but on the great day, when everyone except her could go receive Jesus in the Eucharist, Imelda remained in her place, gazing through tears at the waxen figure in the creche. Imelda began to pray even more earnestly that she might receive Communion.
When her prayer was answered, spring had come to Bologna, and the world was preparing for the Feast of the Ascension. No one paid much attention to the little girl as she knelt in prayer while the sisters prepared for the Mass. Even when she asked to remain in the chapel in vigil on the eve of the feast, it caused no comment; she was a devout child. The sisters did not know how insistently she was knocking at heaven’s gate, reciting to herself, for assurance, the prayer that appeared in the Communion verse for the Rogation Days: “Ask and it shall be given to you, seek and you shall find, knock and it shall be opened to you.”
The door was opened for Imelda on the morning of the Vigil of the Ascension. She had asked once more for the great privilege of receiving Communion, and, because of her persistence, the chaplain was called in on the case. He refused flatly; Imelda must wait until she was older. She went to her place in the chapel, giving no outward sign that she intended to take heaven by storm, and watched quietly enough while the other sister went to Communion.
After Mass, Imelda remained in her place in the choir. The sacristan busied herself putting out candles and removing the Mass vestments. A sound caused her to turn and look into the choir, and she saw a brilliant light shining above Imelda’s head, and a Host suspended in the light. The sacristan hurried to get the chaplain.
The chaplain now had no choice; God had indicated that He wanted to be communicated to Imelda. Reverently, the chaplain took the Host and gave it to the rapt child, who knelt like a shining statue, unconscious of the nuns crowding into the chapel, or the laypeople pushing against the chapel grille to see what might be happening there.
After an interval for thanksgiving, the prioress went to call the little novice for breakfast. She found her still kneeling. There was a smile on her face, but she was dead.
The legend of Blessed Imelda is firmly entrenched in Dominican hearts, though it is difficult now to find records to substantiate it. She may have been eleven, rather than ten when she died. The convent where she lived has been gone for centuries and its records with it.
Several miracles have been worked through her intercession, and her cause for canonization has been under consideration for many years. As recently as 1928 a major cure was reported of a Spanish sister who was dying of meningitis. Other miracles are under consideration. The day may yet come when the lovable little patroness of first communicants can be enrolled in the calendar of the saints.
Born: Born in Bologna, Italy, in 1322
Died: died on the Feast of the Ascension, May 13, 1333
Beatified: cultus confirmed in 1826 by Pope Leo VII
Patronage: named patron of first communicants by Pope Pius X.
Representation: In art, Imelda is a very young Dominican novice, kneeling before the altar with a sacred Host appearing above her. She is venerated at Bologna and Valdipietra.