Emily M. DeArdo


women saints series

Bl. Margaret of Castello: Patron of the Unwanted

Catholicism, dominican saints series, women saints seriesEmily DeArdo2 Comments

In the back corner of my parish sanctuary, there's a small shrine to Bl. Margaret of Castello. When I first joined St. Patrick's, I had no idea who this woman was. Blessed Margaret of where? But the more I learned about her, the more I realized that she needs to be much better known. She's a great blessed for our times. 

Bl. Margaret was born to noble parents, who were horrified when they found out that the son they had so wanted was, in fact, a girl--and a blind, hunchbacked dwarf of a girl, no less. She was hidden away from the world because her parents were terrified someone would see her. Food was passed in through a window, and she could hear Mass and receive communion through another window. (Like many wealthy families, her family had its own chapel.) The local priest undertook her catechesis. But Margaret, for the first sixteen years of her life, saw very few people. 

When she was sixteen, her parents heard of a shrine where miraculous cures were being reported. Her parents took her there, praying for a cure. When Margaret was not healed, her parents abandoned her. 

Think about that. They left a blind, totally innocent sixteen year old girl, alone. And didn't come back for her. They didn't have a change of heart halfway down the road. 

Eventually, she found shelter with some Dominican nuns. She became a member of the third order and took care of those in prison and the dying. 

She died on April 13, 1320, at the age of 33. More than 200 miracles have been attributed to her intercession after her death.  Her body is incorrupt. 

Her feast day is April 13 (yes, a lot of Dominicans in April!). She was beatified in 1609 by Pope Paul V, and her cause for canonization is pending. 

She was a blind, hunchbacked dwarf--and yet she worked miracles. She did incredible things in her life, but her parents--and many others--thought she was useless because of her disabilities. No one is useless to God. 

For more on her canonization process, and this incredible woman, you can visit the Blessed Margaret's Guild site. (The  Guild is based at my home parish. Every Wednesday we have veneration of a relic of her heart, and special prayers, after the daily Masses.) 

St. Catherine of Siena: Doctor of the Church

Catholicism, dominican saints series, women saints seriesEmily DeArdo1 Comment

St. Catherine is one of the three Dominican doctors of the church (we'll get to the others later), and one of only four women Doctors of the Church (along with St. Therese of Lisiuex, St. Teresa of Avila, and St. Hildegard of Bingen). 

She was the 24th (YES, twenty-fourth!) child (out of an eventual 25) born to her parents, Lapa and Giacomo di Benicasa. Giacomo was a cloth dyer. Catherine was born n Marc 25, 1347 in Siena, Italy, and was one of a pair of twins. Her sister, Giovanna, died soon after their birth. As a child, Catherine (or in Italian, Caterina) was so happy that her nickname was "Euphrosyne", which means joy in Greek. 

Catherine had her first vision when she was five or six. On her way home with her brother, she saw Christ in glory, attended by the apostles Peter, John, and Paul. At age 7, she vowed her entire life to God. This vow was tested at the age of 16, when her sister died, and her parents tried to force her to marry her sister's husband. Catherine undertook a severe fasting regime as part of her prayer against being married against her will, and her prayers were answered. From these experiences, she later said that people should "build a cell inside your mind, from which you can never flee." Catherine maintained a constant state of prayer and awareness of God, even when she was outwardly attending to other things. 

Catherine chose to live an active and prayerful life, not becoming a mother or a wife, but also not becoming a nun. After a period of severe illness, Catherine's mother took her to the local "Mantellate", or third order Dominicans, and asked them to take her daughter. Catherine received the Dominican habit from the local friars, despite the strenuous objections of the Mantellate, for up until that time the women had all been widows. Catherine lived at home in almost total silence and solitude. She often gave away her family's food and clothing to the poor.

statue of St. Catherine of Siena at the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia's motherhouse, Nashville, TN

statue of St. Catherine of Siena at the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia's motherhouse, Nashville, TN

At about age twenty-one, Catherine experienced a "mystical marriage" with Jesus, where she received a ring that only she could see. After this, she gradually retreated from her life of solitude and entered the work and life of her family, and began helping the ill and poor of Siena, working in hospitals and in the homes of the sick. Other people were drawn to Catherine's joy and piety, and began to help her in her works. 

If this was all St. Catherine did, she would still be a commendable example of the Dominican charism and saintly behavior. But she did even more. Only taught to read by the Mantellate, Catherine could not write, but yet she felt drawn into the wider world of politics. She traveled through northern and central Italy advocating reform of the clergy and advising people on the spiritual life. She fought to have the papacy returned to Rome from Avignon, and kept up correspondence with Pope Gregory XI, through which she asked him to reform the clergy and the administration of the Papal States. She eventually convinced him to return to Rome and take up residence there. Her involvement with the papacy is why she is often seen holding a boat in art--the boat is the Barque of St. Peter. 

In 1377, she learned to write, and wrote her Dialogue of Divine Providence, still relying on her secretaries for writing some of her correspondence. The Dialogue is her major work, and was written between October of 1377 and November of 1378. It is a dialogue between the soul and God Himself, and much of it was written while Catherine was in deep ecstasy. Her letters are considered great works of Tuscan literature, and some 300 of them survive. 

She died in Rome on April 29, 1380 at the age of thirty-three. 

Throughout her life, she practiced rigorous abstinence from food. She was a daily communicant and also received the stigmata. Catherine's mother, Lupa, helped Catherine's confessor, Bl. Raymond of Capua, O.P., write her daughter's biography. She was canonized in 1491 and named a Doctor of the Church by Pope Paul VI in 1970. 

Her feast day is April 29th, and she's the patron of illness, Italy, Europe, miscarriage, the sick, nurses, sickness, and the saint to invoke against fire. 

Possibly her most famous quote is: If you are what you should be, you will set the world on fire (from her letters).

Tiepolo's  St. Catherine of Siena

Tiepolo's St. Catherine of Siena

The First American-born saint: Elizabeth Ann Seton

Catholicism, women saints seriesEmily DeArdo2 Comments

I've always loved this saint, and while she's not as obscure as some of the other saints we've talked about this week, her story is definitely worth telling. 

Elizabeth was born on August 28, 1774 (she was a contemporary of Jane's!) and was raised Anglican. Her father was a New York City doctor. Her mother died when Elizabeth was three. Her father remarried, but that marriage ended in separation. For a few years, Elizabeth lived with family in New Rochelle while her father studied in London. A gifted horsewoman, she also spoke French and loved music, poetry, and nature. 

 At the age of 19, she married William Seton, a wealthy businessman who worked in the import trade. They had five children: Anna Maria, William II, Richard, Catherine, and Rebecca. The family was socially prominent and happy, and Elizabeth was heavily involved in charitable activities. 

 William's business went bankrupt due to the Napoleonic Wars., and he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Elizabeth, William, and Anna  went to Italy for the climate, hoping for a cure, but William died. God, however, had other plans for Elizabeth's time in Italy.

After William's death, she stayed with the Fellici family, who were William's friends. They were devout Catholics who had Daily Mass said in their chapel. Elizabeth began to attend, and was drawn to their faith and worship practices. By the time she left Italy, she knew that she would receive instruction in the faith when she returned home. She was received into the church on March 14, 1805. 

This wasn't the simple decision it may seem. Anti-Catholic feelings were high in the new country (New York's Anti-Catholic laws had just been lifted in 1804, but Catholics still weren't allowed to vote in some places, and their churches were routinely destroyed), and Elizabeth's family warned her that they would withdraw all financial support from her if she did this. She converted, however, and was left to raise her five children without her family's financial help. 

Let's restate that: five kids. no job. Family has abandoned her. 

Was she crazy? Maybe. 

Fortunately, God provided. She started an academy for young ladies, and with the help of Bishop Carroll of Baltimore, she started an order of sisters--the Sisters of Charity, which still exist today. With her fledgling order and her children, she moved from New York City to Emmitsburg, Maryland, where she opened her first school and first convent. 

The first few years in Emmitsburg were hard. Few students, little money, and no luxuries--all of which were hard for her children, who had been raised in the upper echelons of New York City society. 

The Stone House, Elizabeth and her sisters' first school/convent in Emmitsburg, MD. 

The Stone House, Elizabeth and her sisters' first school/convent in Emmitsburg, MD. 

Her two sons joined the Navy, but her daughters helped their mother in her work; however, Anna and Rebecca both died of tuberculosis. Katherine became the first American to join the Sisters of Mercy. 

On July 31, 1809, Elizabeth established a religious community in Emmitsburg dedicated to the care of the children of the poor. This was the first congregation of religious sisters to be founded in the US, and its school was the first free Catholic school in America. Mother Seton (as she was known in religious life) can therefore be called the founder of the American Parochial School system. 

Elizabeth died on January 4, 1821, of tuberculosis. By 1830, her order was running schools as far west as St. Louis and New Orleans, and had established a hospital in St. Louis. She was canonized on September 14, 1975, by Pope Paul VI. 

Her Feast Day is January 4, and she is the patron saint of seafarers, Catholic schools, and the state of Maryland. 

Can you expect to go to heaven for nothing? Did not our Savior track the whole way to it with His tears and blood? And yet you stop at every little pain.

The Patron Saint of Butter: St. Brigid of Kildare

Catholicism, women saints seriesEmily DeArdo1 Comment

OK, she's not the patron saint of butter. I mean, she should be--if anyone in the Vatican is reading this, we could use a patron saint of butter. She is, however, the patroness of milkmaids, and one story about her tells us about her powers over butter: young Brigid once gave a poor man her  mother's entire stock of butter, but the butter was miraculously replaced before Brigid's mother found out (I don't know about you, but I'd definitely notice if all my butter was missing).



St. Brigid is one of the patrons of Ireland, along with St. Patrick and St. Columba, and she an exciting life story. Most of the stories agree that she was born into slavery, because her mother was a slave (her father was a chieftain, and his wife forced him to sell Brigid and her mother after Brigid's birth).  As a baby, she refused to be fed by a Druid because he was "unpure"--instead, she suckled from a red and white cow. From a young age, she showed special care for the poor , as seen in the butter story, and many miracles are attributed to her, even during her life. 

She became a nun and founded a monastery at Kildare in 480. She also founded a school of art and a scriptorium. 

Her feast day is February 1 and besides being a patron of Ireland, she is also the patron of poultry farmers, babies, blacksmith, dairy maids, dairy workers, fugitives, and midwives. 

The Real Lucy Pevensie

Catholicism, books, women saints seriesEmily DeArdo2 Comments
Good evening,” said the Faun. “Excuse me—I don’t want to be inquisitive, —but should I be right in thinking that you are a Daughter of Eve?”
”My name’s Lucy,” she said, not quite understanding him.
— C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Chapter Two, "What Lucy Found There"

Lucy Pevensie has always been one of my favorite literary characters. I liked her better than the uptight Susan, and definitely better than Mary Ingalls. Lucy, to me, was right up there with Half-Pint and Anne Shirley. 

I'd always thought Lucy was, like Anne, fictional. I was very pleasantly surprised when I realized that not only was Lucy real, but that C.S. Lewis had been inspired by the life of Bl. Lucy of Narni, a Lay Dominican from 15th Century Italy.

(Three guesses on where he got "Narnia".....)

Lucy Brocadelli was born on December 13, 1476, In Narni, in the region of Umbria. She was one of 11 children born to Bartolomeo and Gentilina Cassio. She had a vision of the Blessed Mother when she was five, followed a few years later by another vision where Mary was accompanied by St. Dominic. She was inspired to become a Dominican nun, but when her father died and she was left in the custody of an uncle, this plan was thwarted, as he tried to get her married as quickly as possible. Eventually, Lucy entered into a virginal marriage with Count Pietro di Alessio of Milan. 

Despite her busy social schedule as  a countess, Lucy devoted much time to prayer, instructed the servants in Catholicism, and was well-known for her charity to the poor. Her husband allowed these "strange" behaviors, until a servant told him that he had seen Lucy entertaining a handsome young man in her room. When Pietro went to confront his wife, he saw her studying a large crucifix. The servant said the man she'd entertained looked just like the carving of Christ on the cross.

Eventually, though, Pietro's patience ran out, and her locked her in her room for the whole of a Lenten season one year. She managed to escape and became a third order Dominican, which led her husband to burn down the convent where she'd received the Dominican habit. 

In 1495, Lucy joined a community of lay Dominicans. She received the stigmata and was frequently found in spiritual ecstasy. Her fame spread so that a stream of visitors came to see her and receive council. Pietro pleaded several times for her to return as his wife, but finally he gave up. He eventually became a a Franciscan friar and notable preacher. 

She founded several convents and served as prioress. She died in 1544, after struggles within her Dominican community and severe restrictions placed on her by the convent's prioress. When she died, so many people came to pay respects and see her body that the funeral had to be delayed for three days. 

The connection between Lucy of Narni and Lucy Pevensie, according to Walter Hooper, is that Blessed Lucy could see things that other people couldn't--like her visions--which Lewis incorporated into the story (In Prince Caspian, for example, Lucy is the only one to see Aslan for most of the story): 

After years of study it seems to me that Lewis’s character, Lucy, bears such a very strong resemblance to your saint – the inner light of Faith, the extraordinary perseverance – I don’t think the naming of his finest character Lucy can be other than intentional. I think Blessed Lucy of Narnia has furnished the world with one of the most loved, and spiritually mature characters in English fiction. And if I’m wrong? Well, let me put it this way. My guess is that when we get to Heaven we will be met by C.S.Lewis in the company of Blessed Lucy of Narnia. What will they say to us? Will they reveal whether Lewis based his Lucy on your saint? I think Blessed Lucy of Narnia and C.S.Lewis will laugh. Then Blessed Lucy will say, ‘We will tell you about that later. Other more important things come first. Jack Lewis are here to conduct you into the presence of our Host. After that we can talk about all the things on your mind. But not just yet.’
— Walter Hooper, May, 2009


(Lucy is also possibly inspired by Lewis' goddaughter, Lucy.) 

It probably won't surprise you to learn that, when it came time for me to pick a saint as my patron in the Dominican order, that I chose Bl. Lucy. 


St. Martha and the Dragons

Catholicism, women saints seriesEmily DeArdo4 Comments

A continuation of my Female Saints series

Did you know St. Martha fought dragons?

Seriously, guys. She did a lot more than just make dinner for Jesus. (Not that making dinner for Jesus is nothing, right?)

But most of the time being called a "Martha" is a bad thing, and that's always bugged me a little. We tend to just remember her first appearance in the gospels:

Vermeer, Christ in the House of Martha and Mary

Vermeer, Christ in the House of Martha and Mary

As they continued their journey he entered a village where a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him. She had a sister named Mary [who] sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak. Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.” The Lord said to her in reply, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”
— Luke 10:38-42 (NAB)

If this was all we knew about Martha, then she wouldn't come off too well, would she? But we can also relate to her. Who hasn't had work to do at a party, worried about dishes and serving and the turkey in the oven, while other people are just sitting around, not thinking about everything that needs to be done? It might not be a good reaction, but it's one that we can relate to. 

Often, this passage is used to illustrate the "active" and "contemplative" ways of life. There's some merit in that. Mary is the contemplative, at the feet of Jesus, lost in prayer, and Martha is the one who serves Jesus, who works in the kitchen and makes the house ready for His visit. Both sides are important in the Christian life, and to have just one side isn't good. 

But Martha is a lot more than just the housekeeper. In the Gospel of John, we see her great faith after her brother, Lazarus, has died: 

And many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him; but Mary sat at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. [But] even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise.” Martha said to him, “I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus told her, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.”
— John 11: 19-27 (NAB)

Martha  shows her belief in Jesus here, and testifies, like Peter, that he is the Messiah. She knows who He is. She knows He could have healed her brother if he had been there earlier, but she also accepts Lazarus' death. Her faith in Jesus isn't shaken by this event. 

Martha is strong in both her temperament and her faith. She isn't perfect--Jesus tells her that she has to learn the 'better part' in Luke’s Gospel--but she has many admirable qualities that can be overlooked. She has common sense, strength, a desire to serve and take care of her family, and a concern for others. 

So--what about the dragons? (Come on, Emily, get to the good stuff.)

Well, that's from a French legend: 


...further legend relates that Martha then went to Tarascon, France, where a monster, the Tarasque, was a constant threat to the population. The Golden Legend describes it as a beast from Galicia; a great dragon, half beast and half fish, greater than an ox, longer than an horse, having teeth sharp as a sword, and horned on either side, head like a lion, tail like a serpent, that dwelt in a certain wood between Arles and Avignon. Holding a cross in her hand, Martha sprinkled the beast with holy water. Placing her sash around its neck, she led the tamed dragon through the village.
There Martha lived, daily occupied in prayers and in fastings. Martha eventually died in Tarascon, where she was buried. Her tomb is located in the crypt of the local Collegiate Church.
— Catholic Online

There might not be a lot of dragons around today, but St. Martha is still a good saint to keep in mind when the dragons of chaos and doubt roar in our daily lives. 

She's the patron saint of cooks, and her feast day is July 29. 







An accidental patron: St. Therese and Me

Catholicism, women saints seriesEmily DeArdoComment

Some people have riveting stories about how they found their confirmation saint. It was a sign from God, a message from above, a huge thunderclap of recognition. 

Mine was....sort of random. 

When I started my eighth grade year, I knew I'd be confirmed at the end of it. So I started reading books about the saints, in the hope that I'd find one I liked enough to be my confirmation saint. In the Catholic church, you pick a confirmation name--the name of a saint you admire and want to imitate. This saint becomes one of your patron saints, along with any saints you might be named after, or have particular attachment to. (For example, there is a saint Emily--although I'm not named after her--and my middle name is a derivative of Michael, so St. Michael the archangel has always been one of my patrons.) You're not "supposed" to choose a saint you're named after, though--at least you weren't at my school. You were supposed to pick a different saint. 

Some people pick saints based on their patronages; in my family, a lot of people chose St. Cecilia, because she's the patron saint of music. (St. Gregory the Great is the patron saint of singers.) St. Christopher is the patron of athletes. My mom had chosen St. Bernadette, and my dad St. Francis of Assisi (although not because he was a big nature/animal fan.) I didn't feel particularly drawn to St. Cecilia (Not that she's not cool!). I was also supposed to choose a girl. If I was a boy, I would've chosen St. John the Evangelist. 

So I didn't have any hard and fast winners. I started reading saint biographies that I picked up here and there. (When in doubt, go to books, that's what I say.) 

Eventually, I stumbled on a biography of St. Therese that was written for kids. (I didn't know then about the incredibly large amount of books written about her and her family. If I'd picked a saint based on how many books I could read about them, she would've won pretty quickly.) Her life seemed sort of like mine. She grew up with her parents and her sisters. She played with her cousins. She liked going to church. She didn't have visions or die a virgin martyr. She was relatable. And she hadn't died all that long ago, which I thought was sort of interesting. I had thought that saints lived ages ago. The book also mentioned that she entered Carmel on my birthday. 

So I finished the book and that was that. St. Therese was my confirmation saint. 

As I grew up, I began to realize how intensely popular she was. I learned about the 'Little Way', and read more books about her. I didn't read Story of a Soul until after college, though. When I was diagnosed with a type of TB in high school, I remembered that St. Therese had died of it, and hoped not to imitate her that way. She might have died young (she was 24), but I was only 16! 

I liked the Little Way a lot. A lot of people probably say that, but Therese and I grew up in similar circumstances. We were both middle class girls and neither of us was Joan of Arc. I wasn't going to join the army or become a missionary. I didn't think I was capable of great deeds (like Merry in Return of the King). 

The year after my confirmation, St. Therese was declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope St. John Paul II. 'The Little Way' was right up there with St. Thomas Aquinas!  I didn't fully grasp the implications of that at the time, but I liked how many people were drawn to this French girl who only left her part of France once in her life. 

At the time, I didn't realize how powerful St. Therese is. Sometimes she's called Our Lady's First Lieutenant. She's an incredible intercessor for us. But most of all, she's human. Really. She did have ecstatic moments, like St. Teresa of Avila, her predecessor in Carmel. She didn't save France on the field of battle, like St. Joan of Arc, one of her favorite saints. But she realized she didn't have to--that in God's garden, there are all sorts of flowers. 

That image, as well as another, resonate powerfully with me. The other is the story of a young Therese:

At the age of twelve, Therese’s sister Leonie felt she had no further use for her doll dressmaking kit, and stuffed a basket full of materials for making new dresses. Leonie then offered it to her six year old sister, Celine, and her two year old sister, Therese. “Choose what you wish, little sisters,” invited Leonie. Celine took a little ball of wool that pleased her. Therese simply said, “I choose all.” She accepted the basket and all its goods without ceremony. This incident revealed Therese’s attitude toward life. She never did anything by halves; for her it was always all or nothing.

I'm a lot like that. I want to choose everything and have everything. St. Therese wrote in A Story of A Soul that she "could not be a saint by halves." And that, more than anything else from her, has been instrumental in my life. She refused God nothing; she took whatever He gave her, and she did it willingly. That might not have mean she liked it. But she did it. 

(Mother Teresa, who chose St. Therese as her name in religious--although spelled differently--had much the same attitude, saying she took from God whatever He gave her.) 

So while my 13 year old self didn't think too hard about her confirmation saint, twenty years later, I'm pretty glad she didn't, because she might have missed the treasure that is St. Therese. 

This post is part of a weeklong series on Women Saints.