By Patricia Chadwick
Catherine of Siena is considered a Catholic Saint who lived in Siena, Italy. Early in life she devoted herself to an austere life. The monks tell us that she became a nun of the Dominican order at a young age and that she saw numerous visions and wrought many miracles while quite young.
Catherine Benicasa was born to a lower-middle-class family that was politically active family in Siena. When she was fifteen, she refused her parents’ plans for her to marry and three years later she received the habit of the Dominican Third Order women’s group, which were lay people affiliated with the order. She stayed in the home of her parents until she was twenty-one, living in seclusion and practicing bodily austerities. It was during this time that she learned to read.
She soon became celebrated for her recluse life, revelations, and miraculous powers of conversion. But one of her visionary experiences led her out into the community to serve others. For six years she worked with the poor and the sick, especially victims of the plague and famine in and around Siena. Her reputation for holiness caused her to have a following of would-be disciples. The growth of this following made her well known outside her own city.
In 1374, she attended the Dominican general chapter that was held in Florence, which marked the beginning of her involvement in politics. Her influence was so great that she reconciled Pope Gregory XI to the people of Avignon, in 1376, after he had excommunicated them; and in 1377 she prevailed upon him to reestablish the pontifical seat at Rome, seventy years after Clement V had removed it to France. While even Petrarch and Dante could not persuade the Pope to return to Rome, Catherine was successful. This moved the center of Europe back again to its old place in Rome after the princes of the Church and the greatest men of Italy had attempted it in vain.
Many legends surround the person of Catherine of Siena. One such legend is likely to cause most readers to feel an interest in her name. It is said that in revenge for the defeat of a company of heathen philosophers with whom she had been compelled to dispute, the holy and learned lady was bound to a wheel with spikes, in such a way that every turn of the machine would cause the spikes to pierce her body. But the cords were miraculously broken, and the malice of her enemies foiled. Consequently St. Catherine is always represented with a wheel and the extreme popularity of this saint is indicated by the fact that a wheel of a certain construction and appearance is often called the Catherine wheel (King, Woman, p. 210).
Her literary works consisted of letters, poems, and devotional pieces. The letters are by far the most interesting and valuable of her works. Catherine of Siena died on April 30, 1380 in Rome.
Excerpt from History’s Women – The Unsung Heroines written by Patricia Chadwick. It is available in both print and ebook formats at PC Publications. Stop by and pick up your copy today.