A Holocaust survivor has given evidence to support the canonisation of an English nun who hid Jews from the Nazis in wartime Rome.
Piero Piperno, now aged 80, testified in late August on behalf of Mother Mary Richard Beauchamp Hambrough, whose Cause for Canonisation was recently opened by the Vatican. He was among witnesses invited to give their testimonies to establish that "Mother Riccarda" lived a life of heroic virtue.
Mother Mary Richard Beauchamp Hambrough is credited with playing a vital role in saving the lives of more than 60 Jews by smuggling them into her convent, the Casa di Santa Brigida, during the Second World War.
The early stages of her Cause will involve the examination of her life for evidence of "heroic virtue", before two miracles will be sought to confirm her saintly status.
But if it progresses swiftly, she could become the first British woman saint since 1970 when Paul VI canonised Margaret Clitherow, Anne Line and Margaret Ward among 40 English and Welsh saints who died as martyrs in the Protestant Reformation.
Mother Mary Richard was born Madaleina Catherine in London on 10 September 1887 and was received into the Catholic Church in Brighton when she was four years old after her Anglican parents, Windsor and Louise, converted to the faith.
As a young woman she fell under the influence of Fr Benedict Williamson, a London-based Benedictine monk, and in 1912, aged 24, she travelled to Rome to become a nun.
She was following a group of three other English girls who had set out a year earlier wanting to join the Bridgettines.
She took the religious name Mary Richard and was soon chosen as the assistant to Blessed Mary Elizabeth, the abbess. The order secured a mother house in Piazza Farnese, but within a few years of moving into the new home war broke out and the activities of Mother Riccarda, as she was known to her fellow nuns, were soon concentrated on helping the victims of the conflict.
Pope Pius XII secretly ordered the religious houses of Rome to shelter Jews after the Gestapo seized 1,007 Jews during a sweep of the city on 16 October 1943. He had protested vigorously to the Germans about the round-up but none of those arrested was released.
Mother Riccarda and Mother Mary Elizabeth then willingly gave refuge to scores of people fleeing in terror from the Nazis.
A source within the Bridgettines has confirmed that Mother Riccarda was at the heart of the enterprise in hiding refugees. She said: "We were helping many Jewish people during the war and Mother Riccarda was helping Mother Elizabeth to hide them."
Piero Piperno, an Italian Jew who was among those saved from Nazi persecution by the Bridgettines, was an important witness for furthering Mother Riccarda's Cause because everyone else, he said, had either died or was too young during the period to understand the role played by the individual sisters.
Although the proceedings leading up to beatification are secret, Mr Piperno told the London Times that Mother Riccarda was the personification of "sweetness and sympathy".
He said: "We called Mother Riccarda 'mammina' as if she was our mother. She was Mother Mary Elizabeth's right hand. They were two faces of the same coin." One was kind, the other strict, he said.
The Piperno family moved to Siena to avoid the racial laws imposed by the Fascist government after the outbreak of the war. But when Mussolini was ousted and the Nazis occupied Italy in 1943, Siena was no longer safe.
The family eventually decided to return to Rome, hoping to find safety in the city. There an aunt recommended going to the Bridgettine's motherhouse in the Piazza Farnese.
Mr Piperno recalled: "We were three families, 13 in all. We stayed in three rooms, all the men in one, except an uncle who slept in a dark, small room with no windows, and another two for the women. In the beginning we all ate in one room by ourselves."
For six months - until the Allies liberated Rome - the Piperno family hid in the convent, at every moment fearing potential arrest.
A year after the war the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Israel Zolli, a friend of both Mother Riccarda and Blessed Mary Elizabeth, converted to the Catholic faith - partly because he was so impressed by the efforts of Catholics to save Jewish lives.
Elisa Famiglietti, the vicar general of the Bridgettines' order in Rome, said the formal opening of the Cause would be "such a great honour for England".
She said: "Mother Riccarda was a wonderful woman. I knew her well and met her in 1954 and was with her up until her death in 1966.
"She was an angel who did so much to help our Jewish brothers during the war and I know they want to honour her as well. There are about a dozen or so sisters here in the convent in Rome who remember her and we are all very excited at the fact she is being considered for sainthood.
"Mother Riccarda was full of the spirit of God and was a very humble woman, she sang beautifully from the heart and she was devoted to God and she left a mark on all of us.
"What I always remember about her is that despite living for so long in Italy she never forgot she was English and always spoke English to us."
With acknowledgement to the Catholic Herald and Times (London) for information used in this report.