Virginia Centurione was born on 2 April 1587 in Genoa, into the family of Giorgio Centurione, duke of the Republic of Liguria in the year 1621-1622, and Lelia Spinola. Both of them were of the ancient noble origin. Virginia was baptized two days after her birth, and received her first religious and literary formation from her mother and private tutor.
She soon felt the need for a cloistered life but she had to succumb to her father’s strong will and marry Gaspare Grimaldi Bracelli on December 10, 1602. Gaspare’s family was both illustrious and wealthy, but he was wholly taken up with gambling and living a dissolute life. She gave birth to two daughters: Lelia and Isabella.
The conjugal life of Virginia did not last long. Gaspare Bracelli, despite his marriage and his fatherhood, did not abandon his pleasures, and these brought about his premature death. Virginia, with great patience, prayer and affection, tried to convince her husband to lead a modest life, but unfortunately, Gaspare became ill and died on June 13, 1607, in Alessandria. Virginia became a widow at the age of 20. She refused another arranged marriage brought on due to her father’s influence and took up a vow to live a chaste life.
She lived in her mother-in-law’s house, taking care of the education and the administration of the goods of her children and dedicating herself to God through prayer and acts of charity.
In 1610, she felt a special call “to serve God through the poor”. Although she was strictly controlled by her father and never disregarded the care for the family, Virginia began to devote herself to the needy. She personally helped the poor by sharing half of her wealth with them. To help alleviate the poorness in her town she founded the “Cento Signore della Misericordia Protettrici dei Poveri di Gesù Cristo”. The center was soon overrun with people suffering from the famine and plague of 1629–30 and soon she had to rent the Monte Calvario convent to accommodate all the people that came in. Around 1635 the center was caring for over 300 patients and received recognition as a hospital from the government. Due to declining funds given from the middle and upper classes the institute lost its government recognition in 1647.
The beneficiaries of Our Lady of Refuge became for Virginia her excellent “daughters”, with whom she shared food and clothing. She taught them catechism and trained them to work so that they could earn their own sustenance. Virginia spent the remainder of her life acting as a peacemaker between noble houses and continuing her work for the poor.
Gratified by the Lord with exultations, visions, interior locutions and other mystical gifts, Virginia died on December 15, 1651 at the age of 64. She was beatified on 22 September 1985 and canonized on 18 May 2003 by Pope John Paul II.