Margaret of Cortona
Margaret of Cortona is the patron saint of single mothers and the homeless. Her story begins in 1247 in Laviano, Tuscany, where she was born into a farming family. Her mother died when Margaret was seven years old and life with her stepmother was very difficult. At age seventeen, Margaret met a young Tuscan nobleman of Cortona, moved out of the family home, and into the young man’s castle.
Margaret lived as a mistress to the cavalier, who for nine years promised to marry her but never did. In the meantime she gave birth to his son. During this period, Margaret revealed a deep compassion for the poor, and sought out quiet places to pray and ask for the Lord’s guidance to change her station in life.
One day the young cavalier was discovered murdered in a nearby forest. It was an event that shocked Margaret so badly that she left her companion’s castle, gave his gifts and heirlooms to his family and returned to Laviano with her young son.
When Margaret discovered that she was unwelcome in her hometown, she returned to Cortona to seek shelter. She was desperate for herself and her son, and fought the temptation to trade her beauty for a meal and place to stay. She prayed not to give in.
Two women in Cortona, noticing that she was homeless, took her home with them. They introduced her to the Franciscan friars at the Church of San Francesco. Margaret found spiritual solace in the Franciscan way of life. She embraced this life of simplicity, prayer, penance and self-denial. Her devotion to the Eucharist increased as well.
Under the guidance of a Franciscan spiritual director, she established a hospital for the poor and the homeless.
In 1277, three years after her return to Cortona, Margaret became a Franciscan tertiary. She established a congregation of tertiary sisters from which she recruited nurses for the hospital. Her commitment to prayer and her devotions fueled her growing ministry and drew people to her for advice and inspiration.
Margaret’s son would become a Franciscan friar, and Margaret herself would remain in Cortona for the rest of her life, providing hospitality to the homeless and caring for the sick and impoverished. She passed away when she was 50 years old in Cortona, on February 22, 1297. Her feast day is February 22.
Ita of Killeedy, Ireland
Ita of Killeedy, Ireland, also known as Ida, is one of the two most famous women saints in Ireland, along with Brigid of Kildare. Born near present-day County Waterford, allegedly of a royal family, she was baptized as Deidre. She is said to have rejected a prestigious marriage for a life as a consecrated woman religious. She moved early in her life to Killeedy (in County Limerick), where she founded a small community of nuns and resided for the remainder of her life, in community with other consecrated women. She dedicated herself to prayer, fasting, a simplicity of life and cultivating a gift for spiritual discernment.
Ita was well known for having the gift of being able to guide people in holiness. She was much sought after as a spiritual director and confessor. During this period of Christianity, the Celtic Church was more advanced than other churches at the time in recognizing qualities of spiritual leadership in women and in encouraging women in this role. It is thought that Ita may have been abbess of a double monastery of men and women and that she was a confessor to both, giving difficult penances while maintaining a forgiving and compassionate spirit. Confessing one’s sins to a priest had not yet been established as the normal form for the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and ordained priests were not yet regarded as the only members of the Church authorized to hear confessions, forgive sins, and impose penances.
She began a school for boys, some of whose graduates became saints in their own right, the most famous of whom was Saint Brendan. She was also known as the “foster mother of the saints of Erin.” The name “Ita” (“thirst for holiness”) was conferred on her because of her saintly qualities.
She believed that the three things God most detested were a scowling face, obstinacy in wrong-doing, and too great a confidence in the power of money. Three things she believed God especially loved included a pure heart, living a simple life and great generosity inspired by gratitude for God’s gifts.
Ita died sometime around 570 and was buried in the monastery she founded. It was destroyed by Viking invaders in the ninth century. A Romanesque church was later built over its ruins, but that too failed to survive. The site, however, remains a place of pilgrimage today.
Ita’s feast day is January 15. Although not on the Roman calendar of saints, her feast is celebrated as an optional memorial in Ireland.
Saint Jerome, the most famous biblical scholar in the history of the Church, knew her personally, as he was her teacher and spiritual director. He wrote: “So terrible were the faults imputed to her former husband that not even a prostitute or a common slave could have put up with them.” Fabiola was able to secure a divorce from her husband under Roman civil law, and then she remarried, violating the ordinances of the Church.
While she was still young, Fabiola’s ex-husband died, followed shortly thereafter by her second husband. Upon the latter’s death, she appeared before the gates of Saint John Lateran Basilica, dressed in penitential garb and sought forgiveness for marrying outside the Church. Her public plea for reconciliation was said to have made a great impression upon the Christian population of Rome, and the pope received her formally again into full communion with the Church.
Fabiola devoted her immense wealth to the needs of the poor, the sick and the homeless of Rome. She became a physician and practiced medicine, treating patients with illnesses other physicians would avoid. She also supported the needs of the Church and parish communities throughout Italy.
In 395 Fabiola made a pilgrimage to Bethlehem, an experience which deepened her faith even more dramatically. She lived in a hospice for a time with a religious community, spent hours in prayer, performed menial tasks and cultivated a profound devotion to the simplicity and poverty of the Nativity.
When she returned to Rome, Fabiola sold all her belongings and co-founded what is known to be the first hospital in the Western world. Saint Jerome later wrote that this innovative institution became famous from Britain to Parthia (modern day Iran). And she continued to work tirelessly to treat patients that no one else would treat.
Fabiola died on December 27, 399, of natural causes, and her death was marked by an enormous procession befitting a state funeral. Roman citizens turned out by the thousands to express their gratitude for the life and ministry she had embraced in the city of Rome.
Her feast day is December 27th.
Saint Roque Gonzalez de Santa Cruz was born on November 17, 1576 in the city of Asunción, now the capital of Paraguay, South America. The son of wealthy Spanish colonists, he was well-educated and a devout Catholic. He was ordained a priest at age 22.
In 1609, attracted to the evangelizing activities of the Jesuits, Father Roque entered the order and began his own evangelizing ministry as a missionary in a vast region of South America where today the countries of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay intersect. He would spend the next two decades searching for indigenous peoples, gaining their trust and showing them how to improve their lives by settling them into organized communities protected from slave traders. He then converted them to Christianity. The written records of his extraordinary accomplishments as a missionary and explorer still exist.
At a time when Spanish conquistadors were brutalizing and enslaving natives, Father Roque helped them become self-sufficient and free. In 1613 he established his first native settlement, and spearheaded the Jesuit-movement to establish what came to be called “reductions,” independent Indian village communities that were off limits to slave traders.
The economy of these villages made the Indians self-supporting by combining communal agriculture with private property holding. And the villages had their own political structure that gave the natives a measure of freedom. Father Roque was an innovator who created the model for these unique communities.
Father Roque’s creative evangelizing ministry not only made Christianity attractive to the natives of the region, it even got the attention of such European intellectuals as Voltaire who, singularly impressed with Father Roque’s ministry, wrote:
The Paraguayan missions reached the highest degree of civilization to which it is possible to lead a young people. In those missions, law was respected, morals were pure, a happy brotherliness bound men together, the useful arts and even some of the more graceful sciences flourished, and there was abundance everywhere.
Not everyone embraced his model of evangelizing though. In 1628, Father Roque, joined by two other Jesuits who would later become saints themselves, Saint Juan del Castillo, SJ and Saint Alonso Rodríguez, SJ, established a mission that roused the hostility of a local chieftain. In November 1628, Father Roque and his Jesuit companions were tortured and killed.
“All the Christians among my countrymen loved the Father and grieved for his death because he was the father of all our Indian communities along the Paraná River” so testified Chief Guarecupi after Father Roque’s assassination. The chief’s testimony revealed a deep affection by the indigenous people for Father Roque and their awareness of the great personal sacrifices he had made over two decades to improve their lives and bring them to Christ.
Father Roque was canonized by Saint John Paul II in 1988. His feast day is November 17.
Alphonsus Rodriguez was a Spanish Jesuit lay brother whose assignment for 45 years was being a doorkeeper at one of its colleges. One observer noted that Alphonsus carried out this simple task with such loving hospitality that the act of opening the college door became a “sacramental gesture.”
Born in Segovia, Spain in 1533, Alphonsus was the child of a prosperous wool merchant. His father died when he was 14 and he left school to help his mother run the family business. He inherited the business when he was only 23 years old and at the age of 26 he married María Suarez, with whom he had three children. By the time he was 31, though, he found himself a widower who had not only lost his wife, but his mother and two of his children as well.
Alphonsus sold his business and began living a life of prayer and simplicity. When his third child died, his thoughts turned to living in a religious community. He wanted to become a Jesuit but was rejected for his lack of formal education. In 1571 he applied a second time and was accepted as a lay brother. At age 40 he was sent to the recently established college on Spain’s Mediterranean island of Majorca and was assigned the humble position of porter, a doorkeeper.
His daily responsibilities for the next 45 years included receiving visitors who came to the college, searching for the college staff or students who were wanted in the parlor, delivering messages, running errands and distributing alms to the needy. He would, however, transform this humble station into a ministry of hospitality and spiritual guidance.
Alphonsus exercised a marvelous influence not only on the members of the college community, but upon a great number of people who came to him for advice. His reputation for holiness grew and people began going to him for spiritual direction. Saint Peter Claver, while a student at the college, was one of them. It was Alphonsus who inspired Claver to become a missionary in the New World.
Alphonsus once wrote that each time the bell at the front door rang he looked at the door and envisioned that it was God who was standing outside seeking admittance. He died on October 31, 1617 and in 1633 local officials declared him patron saint of Majorca. In 1888 he was canonized a saint and the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins memorialized him in a sonnet. His feast day is October 31.
Every capital campaign requires initial donors, those major gifts in the quiet phase that ensure a strong foundational for the campaign’s future. Large gifts can stretch people’s pocketbooks, but can we imagine entirely emptying them? That’s the story of St. Katherine Drexel.
The daughter of a prominent investment banker in Philadelphia in1858, Katherine experienced all the trappings of high society. Still, her family was Catholic and she received a strong, faith-based upbringing. They traveled frequently, exposing young Katherine to the needs on the American frontier. After her father’s death, Katherine inherited a large sum of money.
Still, Katherine’s heart was not in becoming another socialite with the East Coast elite. She began parsing out her inheritance to charity work among the Native Americans. During a pilgrimage to Rome, she begged Pope Leo XIII to appeal for missionaries to the people she’d come to love. His response changed the course of Katherine’s life: “Why don’t you become a missionary?”
Four years later, Katherine had founded a religious order specifically to serve the Native American and African American population in the United States. Her order opened 145 missions and over 70 schools across the United States. During Katherine’s life, the cost of opening these schools was largely financed by her personal fortune of nearly $20 million – roughly $500 million today.
While most of us won’t be called to give away every penny to our name, Katherine’s example of total surrender can inspire us no matter our walk of life. Rather than use her money for selfish pursuits, Katherine saw a need and sought to fill it with everything she had. Where is the need in your community? How are you seeking to meet it?
“When [Jesus] looked up he saw some wealthy people putting their offerings into the treasury and he noticed a poor widow putting in two small coins. He said, ‘I tell you truly, this poor widow put in more than the rest” (Luke 21:1-3).
Juan Diego was born a member of the native Chichimeca people in central Mexico. He was not a particularly wealthy or educated man. He experienced a deep conversion to Christianity later in life. His devotion to the Eucharist led him to walk long miles to Mass and to receive formation from the local Franciscan friars. One day’s walk stood on from the rest. On December 9th, 1531, a woman appeared to him on Tepeyac Hill. She appeared in the dress of the native people and spoke to Juan Diego in his native language, but she revealed herself to be the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Juan Diego was entrusted with a mission both simple and profound – to ask the local bishop to construct a shrine. Upon his first request, the bishop was understandably skeptical. He instructed Juan Diego to ask Mary for a sign. Three days later, Juan Diego returned to Tepayac Hill. There, Mary appeared again and fragrant roses bloomed out of season. Juan Diego picked the roses and returned to the bishop.
Here was a simple gift from a simple man – a mantle full of roses. Yet as the roses tumbled from Juan Diego’s cloak, there on the fabric was the image now so familiar across the world – Our Lady of Guadalupe. Juan Diego never could have imagined the results of his simple gift. The “yes” of Juan Diego led to the construction of a shrine, inspired millions of conversions, and still transforms lives to this day.
We all have roses and small coins. If we can step out in faith and offer the little we have, who knows what great deeds God will do?
In this internet age, we have unique insight into the lives of modern day saints. St. Teresa of Kolkata is much beloved for her care for the poorest of the poor in the slums of India.
Born in Albania, St. Teresa began her religious life as a member of the Sisters of Loreto. After a placement in India teaching at a boarding school, she experienced what she referred to as a “call within a call.” Seeing the destitute on the margins of society, St. Teresa could no longer remain behind the walls of the school. She was compelled to take her ministry to the streets. In 1950 she received permission for the community that would become the Missionaries of Charity.
In St. John Paul II’s document on the Dignity and Vocation of Women, he writes “the moral and spiritual strength of a woman is joined to her awareness that God entrusts the human being to her in a special way” (30).
What is stewardship if not entrusting? God gives us our life, with all it’s gifts, strengths, and weaknesses. St. Teresa of Kolkata recognized that she was entrusted with her life, her one life, to offer as a gift to those in need. As the Missionaries of Charity grew, as donations came in and convents were built, St. Teresa recognized that not only was she entrusted with the means to serve, but she was entrusted with the person themselves. Every person she encountered – the dying, the disabled, the refugees, the orphan – she met as if meeting as Christ.
As we grow in a stewardship way of life, let us remember that we are not only entrusted with our finances and abilities, but we are entrusted with one another, brothers and sisters in the family of God.
Clare of Assisi was a close friend of Saint Francis of Assisi and the foundress of the Poor Clares. She was born in Assisi in 1194 and at age 18 was so moved by the Lenten sermons of Francis that she renounced all of her possessions and entered a convent, much to the dissatisfaction of her family and friends, who tried very hard to dissuade her and bring her home. She was formed in the religious life at Benedictine monasteries and then accepted Francis’ offer of a small house for herself and her companions adjacent to the church of San Damiano in Assisi. At age 21, she was appointed by Francis to lead the community, much against her will. She would lead the community for the next forty years and would never leave the San Damiano convent. The community would eventually include her mother and two sisters.
The way of life in the new community was marked by poverty and austerity, and sustained itself entirely from charitable contributions. The Poor Clares observed almost complete silence unless spoken to or in order to perform a work of charity. They went barefoot, slept on the ground and ate no meat. In later years, Clare urged her nuns to moderate their own austerities and offer Christ “reasonable service and sacrifice seasoned with the salt of prudence.” The greatest emphasis, of course, was on gospel poverty. They owned no property.
Clare served the sick and washed the feet of the begging nuns. She was devoted to a life of prayer and celebration of the Eucharist. She was first up in the morning to ring the choir bell and light the candles.
Clare sought to imitate Francis’ virtues and way of life so much so that she was sometimes called “another Francis.” She played a significant role in encouraging and aiding Francis, whom she saw as a spiritual father figure. She took care of him during his final illness.
From the time Francis died in 1226 until her own death 27 years later, Clare suffered various illnesses and was often bedridden. All the while, she lived a simple but dedicated religious life, performing such menial tasks as sewing altar linens for local parishes. Twice when the town of Assisi was under attack, Clare prayed before the Blessed Sacrament and the armies were said to have ended their siege and fled.
Clare’s nuns soon spread to other countries in Europe, including Spain, Italy, Germany, France and England. Today, they are also established in the Middle East, Asia, Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. She passed away on August 11, 1253 and was canonized two years later. Her feast day is August 11.