Born in Italy in 1888, the young girl lived in fear of her father, a violent man prone to jealousy and drunkenness. Her schooling was limited so that she could spend more time helping at home and working in the fields. She showed few talents and was often the butt of jokes.
In 1904 she joined the Sisters of St. Dorothy and was assigned to work in the kitchen, bakery and laundry. After some time Maria received nurses training and began working in a hospital with children suffering from diphtheria. There the young nun seemed to find her true vocation: nursing very ill and disturbed children. Later, when the hospital was taken over by the military in World War I, Sister Maria Bertilla fearlessly cared for patients amidst the threat of constant air raids and bombings.
She died in 1922 after suffering for many years from a painful tumor. Some of the patients she had nursed many years before were present at her canonization in 1961.