I have long known that my name was chosen by my sisters in honour of Saint Catherine. As a child I remember this statue my mother had of a nun in a black robe with a huge, white hat – a little bit like the one Sister Bertrille wore on ‘The Flying Nun.’ The bat-wing veil had been broken at some stage and then glued back together. I thought it looked hideous! Then I learned I was named for this woman – Saint Catherine of Labouré – who I am amused to discover is the only French Saint Catherine! Yes, there is more than one. Actually there are six Saint Catherines, each with their own story, (one of whom actually lived during the time of Lions and Lilies) and as a feast day for two of them (Saint Catherine’s Day -Nov 25) is looming, I dedicate this blog to those six saints and to all the Catherines everywhere!
NB. The cornette, as used in ‘The Flying Nun,’ was based on one worn until the mid-1960’s by the ‘Daughters of Charity’ (see Labouré)
This is not meant as a religious blog but as a dedication to the name of ‘Catherine.’
By Cathy T
Saint Catherine of Alexandria – Egypt
Patron saint of Potters and Spinners
287 AD to 385 AD – 18 years of age
Virgin/ Feast Day 25th November
Body – Incorrupt
Saint Catherine of Alexandria was the beautiful daughter of the pagan King Costus and Queen Sabinella, who governed Alexandria in the 4th century. In such a fortunate position she became well-versed in all the arts, sciences and philosophy as she was very intelligent. She had a vision when she was around the age of 14 in which the Blessed Virgin Mary gave her to Christ in a mystical marriage. She became a Christian and swore her to remain a virgin, dedicating herself to Christ.
When she complained to the Emperor Maxentius of the enforced worship of idols, he called in 50 philosophers to refute her arguments but it was she who refuted theirs and they were put to death for their failure. Catherine was ordered to renounce her Christian faith but would not. She caused further embarrassment when she refused the Emperor’s proposal of marriage and she was beaten for two hours before being thrown into prison.
When she was in prison, it is said she was brought food by a dove. Catherine’s influence, even from her cell, was enough to cause the Emperor worry so he tried to have her spirit broken on the spiked wheel. Her hands and feet were tied to the wheel and it was about to be rotated when the structure split and fell apart. This forms the basis of the ‘Catherine Wheel’ firework still seen today and is also why she is the patron saint to potters and spinners or any tradesperson who works with a wheel. However, Catherine did not escape death and was beheaded by a sword stroke. In the 6th century her corpse was taken to Mount Sinai and around the year 800 it was discovered her hair was still growing with healing oil issuing from her body.
In the 15th century Joan of Arc claimed that Saint Catherine was one of the saints who spoke with her.
Saint Catherine of Sienna – Italy
Patron Saint of Rome and Nurses
1347 to 1380 – 33 years of age
Virgin – Feast Day – 29th April
Body – Incorrupt
Catherine of Sienna was the youngest of 25 children (not all living). She was born with a twin who did not survive the birth. Her father, Giacomo di Benincasa ,was a cloth dyer who died in 1368 leaving Catherine to care for her mother, Lapa.
Catherine is said to have had her vision of Jesus when she was just 6 years old, followed by another vision 13 years later. According to Catherine’s testimony, the Virgin Mary took her hand and held it up to Christ who placed a ring upon one finger. This ring was not made of gold but was the ‘Holy Prepuce’ or ‘Christ’s foreskin’, one of the relics attributed to Jesus. (For the rest of her life, Catherine said she could see the ring on her finger.) When her older sister, Bonaventura died in childbirth, Catherine was to marry her sister’s widower but she was apposed to this and began to fast. She also cut off her long hair to make herself as unattractive as possible.
She was deeply spiritual and her influence often made people change their minds. For this reason , during her life, she became a mediator of church politics and, with increasing pressure on Pope Gregory XI to return to Rome, she journeyed to Avignon to see him. His resulting return of the papacy to the holy capital is often attributed to Catherine’s intervention, although French Bishops again re-elected an Avignon pope as a rival to Rome when Gregory died.
In 1375 she visited Pisa and it was here that Catherine’s greatest traditional glory befell her, the stigmata or impression on her hands, feet and heart of Christ’s wounds but Catherine and her circle were Dominicans, and the stigmata of St Francis of Assisi was the exclusive boast of the Franciscans. NB. (This led to some conflict between the two orders with the eventual ruling from the Franciscan Pope Sixtus IV in 1471 that Saint Francis had an exclusive monopoly of this particular wonder, making it an offence to represent Saint Catherine receiving the stigmata. However, her claim to stigmata had already led her to share ‘Patron Saint of Rome’ alongside St Francis.)
Catherine was eventually called to Rome to assist Pope Urban but her habitual fasting had become a threat to her health, for she claimed she found no nourishment in earthly food. She would disgorge what she swallowed and suffer severe stomach pains, until she could neither eat nor swallow water. She lost the use of her legs in February (1380) and suffered a stroke on April 21, dying 8 days later.
She was buried near the Pantheon in Rome in the cemetery of Santa Maria sopra Minerva but after miracles were reported to take place at her grave, she was moved inside the Basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minverva, where she lies to this day (minus a head).
The people of Siena wanted Catherine’s body and a story is told of a miracle. Knowing they would get caught trying to smuggle her whole body out of Rome, they cut off her head and inserted it into a bust of bronze. When stopped by the Roman guards and ordered to show the contents of the bag, they prayed to Catherine to help them. When the guards opened the bag, there was a beautiful scent of roses and the bag was seen to hold only petals. They were allowed to pass. When the bag was again opened in Sienna, the head was visible once more. Her head was placed in a splendid reliquary, where it remains today, near her disembodied thumb, in the Church of San Dominico.
The rest of Catherine’s body remains in Rome, and her foot is said to be in a reliquary in Venice. Although the lily is the flower attributed to Saint Catherine of Siena, she is often depicted holding a rose.
Catherine remains a greatly respected figure for her spiritual writings, and political boldness to “speak truth to power”— it being exceptional for a woman, in her time period, to have had such influence in politics and on world history.
Saint Catherine of Bologna – Italy
Patron saint of Artists
1413 to 1463 – 49 years of age
Virgin / Feast Day 9th March
Catherine de Vigri was the daughter of a diplomatic agent of Marquis Nicholas IV, Duke of Ferrara. At the age of eleven, she was appointed maid of honour to Margherita d’Este, the daughter of the Marquis, where she received excellent training in reading, writing, music, singing, drawing and illuminating. When Margherita married, she wanted Catherine to remain in her service, but Catherine left the court and became a Franciscan Tertiary at the age of fourteen. Despite her noble life at court, Catherine eagerly responded to her call to God. Her piety, charity and kindness attracted many followers as she dedicated her life to deeds of charity.
In 1431 she and her fellow sisters founded a monastery of the Order of Poor Clares. She soon began to experience visions of Christ and Satan, and wrote of her experiences. She returned to Bologna in 1456 when her superiors wished for her to be the founder and Abbess of a monastery of the same Order.
In Lent of 1463, Catherine became seriously ill and she died on March 9th. Buried without a coffin, her body was exhumed eighteen days later because of cures attributed to her and also because of the sweet scent coming from her grave. Her body was found to be incorrupt and remains so today, sitting in her Golden Throne in the small chapel of the Cheisa della Santa.
Catherine is the author, among other things, of Treatise on the 7 Spiritual Weapons Necessary for Spiritual Warfare and some of her art and manuscripts survive, including a depiction of St. Ursula from 1456, now in the Galleria Academica in Venice. In the last few years of the millennium, new works by Catherine de’Vigri came to light and were published in Italian, in her native Bologna. The works, many of which have long remained unknown, are now revealed in their surprising beauty. We can ascertain that she was not undeserving of her renown as a highly cultivated person. She is honoured for her pure and centred heart which helped her turn away from sin.
Saint Catherine of Genoa – Italy
Patron Saint of Brides and hospitals
1447 – 1510
Married/Feast Day 15th September
Caterina Fieshchi Adorno was born in 1447, the youngest of five children. At the age of 13, she was refused entry to a convent because the nuns considered her too young and so, following her parents wishes, at 16 she married a young Genoese nobleman, Giuliano Adorno. Her husband turned out to be a faithless, violent-tempered, spendthrift and he made his wife’s life a misery. Catherine spent the first years of her marriage in a silent melancholy, submissive to her husband. She prayed to be released from such unhappiness. She had no children though, in the years that followed, her husband had at least one with a mistress.
In 1473, after ten years of misery, she was converted by a mystical experience during confession where she had an ‘overpowering sense of God’s love for her.’ She abruptly left the church without finishing confession, she was so overwhelmed. From hereon in she became devoted, her outward demeanour so changed it could not go unnoticed.
She began to care for the sick and the poor in Genoa’s slums and gave her services to the hospital and by 1477 her husband gave up his wicked ways and joined her. He later became a Franciscan tertiary (a lay person affiliated with the order) but Catherine herself, never became associated with any order. In 1479 the couple moved into rooms near the large Pammatone hospital and worked for charity. After her husband’s death in 1497, a terrible plague broke out in Genoa and lasted for four years, carrying off four-fifths of the population. Catherine heroically sacrificed herself for the sick, day and night. At the same time she continued her accustomed penances and religious exercises.
During this time Catherine wrote Trattato del Puratorio describing her beliefs that Purgatory was a place of joy rather than physical suffering. She also wrote the first part of Dialogo Spirituale – a witty conversation embodying the internal conflict she had undergone between her spiritual goal and her bodily desires. As others gathered to her, they recorded her words and, together with their memories, they would become the last two parts of Dialogo.
She died in 1510, worn out. Her death was slow with many days of pain and suffering as she experienced visions and wavered between life and death. The body of St Catherine was exhumed eighteen months after her death. It was found to be perfectly intact even through her burial shroud was damp and decayed.
Saint Catherine of Ricci – Italy
Patron Saint of the Sick
1522 to 1590 – 67 years of age
Virgin/Feast Day 13th February
Catherine of Ricci was born Alessandra Lucrezia (Loo-cret-zia) Romola de Ricci in Florence. Her mother died soon after. When she was around the age of 6, her father enrolled her into a school run by Benedictine nuns, where her aunt was the abbess.
From there she entered the Convent of Saint Vincent in Tuscany, a Saint Dominic Order where she received her religious name of ‘Catherine’ taken from Saint Catherine of Sienna. Her time as a novitiate would be a trial for she was seemingly a clumsy girl, constantly dropping plates and food and falling asleep in during community prayers until it was understood that during these times, she was experiencing ‘ecstaties’ ( a spiritual state). She became a prioress by the age of 30 and developed into an effective administrator, advising princes, bishops and cardinals. She gave counsel in person and through letters.
She also bore the stigmata (Christ’s wounds) and it was claimed during her meditation she often bled spontaneously as though scourged. Like her namesake, it was claimed that during times of deep prayer, a coral ring, representing her marriage to Christ, would appear on her finger but more fascinating was her sudden appearance in Rome, many hundreds of miles away from where she was physically located, where she was seen and the visit recorded by Philip Neri. Catherine suffered a prolonged illness and died in 1590.
Saint Catherine of Labouré – France
Deliverer of the Miraculous Medal
1806 to 1876 – 70 years of age
Virgin/Feast Day 25th November, 28th November and 31st December.
Zoe Catherine Labouré was born in Burgundy to a farmer, Pierre Labouré, and Louise Madeleine Gontard. She was the ninth of 11 living children. Her mother died in 1815, when Catherine was just eight years old and it is said that after the funeral, she picked up a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary and kissed it saying, ‘Now you will be my mother.’
Catherine had a dream of an old priest who gave her a message that she would come looking for him. As the years went by she failed as a waitress at her brother’s restaurant in Paris and was sent to her other brother, Hubert and his wife, Jane, who ran a boarding school for young girls. Unhappy being schooled with the twelve to fourteen year olds, twenty-two year old Catherine learned to read and write. One day Hubert’s wife, Jane, took Catherine to the local hospital run by the ‘Daughters of Charity. She saw a picture on the wall and was shocked to see it was the old priest from her dream. She learned his name was Saint Vincent de Paul. She knew then she was meant to enter the nursing order ‘Daughters of Charity.
Only new to the convent, she began to have visions and in 1830, on the eve of Saint Vincent (Sept 27th), Catherine woke to hear a child’s voice calling her. She saw a young boy and he took her hand and led her to the chapel whereupon she was visited by the Virgin Mary.
Mary told Catherine that France would come upon troubled times and God would charge her with a mission. Two months later, on November 27, she reported to her superior, Father Aladel, that the Blessed Mother had appeared to her again, displayed inside an oval frame, standing on a globe, wearing many rings of different colours, most of which shone rays of light over the world. Around the frame, Catherine could read the words, ‘O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.’ As she watched, the frame rotated, showing a circled of twelve stars, a large letter M surmounted by a cross and the stylised Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate heart of Mary, underneath.
The Sacred Heart and Immaculate heart
When Catherine asked why some of the Blessed Virgin’s rings did not shed light, Mary replied ‘Those are the graces for which people forget to ask.’ Catherine was told to take these images to her father confessor, and tell him they must be put on medallions. ‘All who wear them will receive great graces.’
Catherine did so, and after two years of hesitation, Father Aladel took the information to the archbishop without revealing Catherine’s identity. The bishop harboured no doubt and the request was approved and the design of the medallions was commissioned through French goldsmith, Adrien Vachette. The medal was struck and distributed. It proved very popular, especially during a cholera plague. Seemingly, those who wore the medal were healed, even when on a deathbed. It was hailed as miraculous.
Catherine lived her remaining years as an ordinary nursing sister at the convent of Enghien. She continued to hail the graces of the Miraculous medal, converting even the most doubtful men at the home. There was a terrible revolution in Paris but as predicted by Our Lady to Catherine, she never lost faith and continued her good work during times when religious fervour was extremely dangerous. Members of her Order had been guillotined in Cambrais and Dax for not taking the ‘Revolutionary Oath.’
Catherine died in December 1876 and few people knew that she was the one who brought the Miraculous Medal to the world. In 1895 her cause for Beatification was introduced in Rome. She was exhumed in 1933, her body was judged to be incorrupt by the church, and it now lies in a glass coffin at the side altar of the Chapel of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, often simply called by its address, 140 Rue du Bac, Paris, the place where the Blessed Mother appeared to her.
By Cathy T