Celebrating Dominican Women
As part of our ongoing celebration of the 800th Jubilee year, we are featuring biographies of Dominican women from throughout the centuries who radically preached the Gospel with their lives.
Blessed Cecilia Caesarini
c.1200 - c.1290
Blessed Diana d'Andalo
Three 13th Century Nuns: Friends of Dominic and Sources of Earliest Dominican History
The paths of these three women intersected in Bologna, Italy, when they came to live in the same Dominican Convent. Each woman knew Dominic personally. Two contributed significantly to our knowledge about Dominic and the earliest days of his newly established Order of Preachers.
Cecilia Caesarini was born around 1200 into a noble Roman family. As a young woman, she entered the Benedictine monastery of Santa Maria del Tempulo. This monastery was one of the seven Roman monasteries whose lifestyles had become lax and that Pope Honorius III asked Dominic to reform and consolidate. In 1220, when Dominic came to Santa Maria del Tempulo to persuade the Nuns to recommit to an observant religious life and to relocate to the nearby San Sisto Convent, the young Cecilia urged the superior to support this proposal. According to tradition, Cecilia was the first to express enthusiasm for the project and the first to receive the habit from the hands of Dominic in the new, reorganized community. In 1224, Cecilia and three other Nuns from the Roman community were invited by Dominic’s successor, Jordan of Saxony, to the new Convent of Saint Agnes in Bologna to assist with that foundation. Cecilia served as the prioress of that community. When she was nearly 90 years of age, Cecilia dictated her detailed memories of Dominic and the earliest days of the Order to an early Dominican Friar historian. Cecilia provided for posterity the only first-hand description of the appearance and personality of Dominic.
Diana, a member of the powerful d'Andalo family, was born in Bologna at the beginning of the 13th century. Attracted to the Order by the preaching of Reginald of Orleans, Diana urged her father to assist with the establishment of the Friars in Bologna. Diana met Dominic during his last journey to Bologna and vowed before him that she would join the Order as soon as a convent could be established. She overcame the strong objections of her family and in 1222 with the help of Jordan of Saxony founded the Convent of Saint Agnes. Diana made a great contribution to the Order in saving all the correspondence that Jordan of Saxony wrote to her in the early years of the Order. The letters are evidence of the deep friendship shared by Diana and Jordan and demonstrate the possibility of warm affection between Sisters and Brothers of the Order. Jordan also wrote about the unfolding history of the Order, the many novices who joined it, and his sorrow at the death of friends. Without Diana’s careful preservation of Jordan’s letters, we would lack what was compiled as the Libellus, the single greatest source of early Dominican history. Diana died in 1236.
Concerning Sister Amata, we know practically nothing, but that she was a friend of St. Dominic. He, according to legend, gave her the name Amata--which means “beloved”. Dominic probably urged Amata to enter the Convent of San Sisto or was the means of her staying there at the time of the reforms, when the Nuns left Santa Maria del Tempulo and moved to San Sisto. She was among those Nuns who moved with Cecilia to Bologna to assist with that foundation. She was buried with Cecilia and Diana.
Former Master of the Order, Hyacinthe Cormier, OP, noted how these three women personify the three essential graces of monastic life: Amata, deep humility; Cecilia, the prioress, wise and creative authority; Diana, the greatest grace of them all, perfect love. They share a common tomb, and they were beatified together in 1891. Dominicans observe the feast day of these early Dominican Nuns on June 8.
Sources: St. Dominic’s Family, Dorcey; http://www.op.org.au/texts/jun_biog.pdf; http://www.nashvilledominican.org/community/our-dominican-heritage/our-saints-and-blesseds/bl-diana-dandalo; http://summitdominicans.org/blog/2006/06/happy-feast-of-bl-diana-dandalo-bl-cecilia-and-bl-amata
Blessed Mary Bartholomew Bagnesi
1514 - 1577
Dominican Lay Woman
Dominican Lay Woman: Patron of Victims of Abuse and of the Sick
Maria Bagnesi was born in Florence, Italy, in 1515. Reportedly a small and beautiful child, she was somewhat neglected by her parents and often placed in the care of others, including one of her sisters who was a Dominican Nun. When her father arranged a marriage for Maria, she became physically ill and remained so most of her life. We’re told that Maria, in her vulnerable condition, was tyrannized by a household servant for many years.
Unable to enter a convent because of her poor health, Maria became a Lay Dominican at the age of 30. The mid-Renaissance spirituality that Maria embraced included expressions of asceticism and penance that are difficult to understand in the present day. Nevertheless, she was able to offer spiritual encouragement and consolation to many pilgrims who came to her.
Maria died in 1577. According to her wishes, she was buried in the church attached to the Carmelite Convent of Saint Mary of the Angels, where she was greatly venerated. Seven years later, Saint Mary Magdalen de Pazzi, then a young religious in that Convent, was miraculously cured of a serious illness through the intercession of Blessed Maria. Afterwards, this Carmelite maintained a special devotion to Maria, a member of the Dominican Laity.
Maria is considered a patron of victims of abuse and of the sick. She was beatified in 1804. Dominicans celebrate her feast on May 28.
Blessed Mary Bartholomew Bagnesi is one of the 23 Dominican women whose biographies Ven. Samuel Mazzuchelli, OP, included for “the edification of the Sisters” in The Rule of the Sisters of the Third Order of St. Dominic that he developed in 1860.Sources: St. Dominic’s Family, Dorcey; http://www.op.org.au/texts/may_biog.pdf; http://catholicsaints.info/blessed-maria-bagnesi/;
Blessed Columba of Rieti
1467 - 1501
Dominican Sister of the 3rd Order
Dominican Mystic Provides Sharp Contrast to Church Corruption and Moral Laxity
Angiolella Guadagnoli was born in 1467 in Rieti, Italy. During her baptism, legend says that a dove flew down to the font. Thereafter, no one used her given name but rather called her “Columba” (dove). From her parents, Columba learned piety and concern for those who were even poorer than themselves. As a small girl, Columba learned to spin and sew. She came to know the Dominicans because she and her mother mended the clothes of the local Friars. She was educated by Dominican Nuns who taught her about Catherine of Siena. Even as a young child, Columba wanted to imitate Catherine and so chose to dedicate herself to God, spending time in prayer, self-denial, and service. Having made a private vow of chastity, Columba rejected a marriage that her parents had arranged for her.
At age 19, Columba continued in the footsteps of Catherine and became a member of the Dominican Laity. Like Catherine, Columba showed great charity towards the poor, the sick, and the dying. She also accompanied a prisoner sentenced to death; she predicted the eleventh-hour reprieve that was granted to him. Columba was one among a number of holy Dominican women who seem to have been expressly raised up by God as a sharp contrast to the religious decline prevalent in Italy during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Her reputation for wisdom and holiness spread throughout the region, and she was a much sought after counsellor. She was known as a mystic, healer, prophet, and miracle worker.
Because of her spiritual gifts and power, there are stories of people from various villages demanding that Columba come to reside with them. However, at the request of the bishop of Perugia, Columba eventually settled there in 1490 and established a convent of Third Order Sisters where she became prioress. Years later, when plague struck Perugia, Columba, worked among the sick, healing many by praying for them. She offered her own health in exchange for the city. When the general epidemic ended, she became ill herself but eventually recovered; she attributed her healing to the intercession of Catherine of Siena. Even the not-so-saintly Borgia pope, Alexander VI, was impressed with Columba’s holiness and held her in high regard. However, her sanctity caused her to be persecuted for years by the pope’s daughter, Lucrezia Borgia. Columba died in Perugia on the feast of the Ascension, May 20, 1501. She was beatified in 1697. Dominicans celebrate her feast on May 21.
Sources: St. Dominic’s Family, Dorcey; http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04121a.htm; http://catholicsaints.info/blessed-columba-of-rieti
Blessed Joanna of Portugal
1452 - 1490
Princess Rules as Regent but Chooses Convent Over Royal Court
Joanna, the only daughter of King Alphonso V of Portugal and his wife, Isabella of Coimbra, was born in Lisbon in 1452. Her mother died when Joanna was a small child, and she was put in the care of a devout nurse. From childhood, Joanna expressed a desire for religious life and was known for her asceticism, piety, and prayer. Although Joanna would not inherit the throne while her brother was alive, a wise marriage would do much to increase her father’s power. Because of this, her father would not consider her request to enter a convent.
In 1471, Alfonso and his son, Prince Jo, undertook a military expedition against the Muslim Moors in Africa. Joanna ruled as the king’s regent during his absence. Apparently she handled the task very capably. When her father and brother returned victorious, Joanna renewed her request to enter the Dominican convent at Aviero, noted for its strict observance. Her father made a minor concession: Joanna could go to Aveiro to live, but she could not take vows or give up control of her properties. One positive outcome was that she was able to devote her personal income to worthy causes. A charity that appealed to her particularly was the ransom of Christians who had been enslaved by the Moors in Africa.
For many years, Joanna’s efforts to live conventual life were interrupted by illness, interfering relatives, attempts to arrange marriages, and demands by her brother that she return to the royal court for state business. After 12 years of prayer and hoping, Joanna received the Dominican habit. However, her life continued to be disrupted by the ambitions of her brother.
Joanna busied herself with lowly tasks for the love of God. She lived a life of humility, penance, and simplicity and died at the monastery on May 12, 1490. She died, as it says in an old chronicle, “with the detachment of a religious and the dignity of a queen,” and with the religious community around her. Joanna was beatified in 1693.
Blessed Joanna of Portugal is one of the 23 Dominican women whose biographies Ven. Samuel Mazzuchelli, OP, included for “the edification of the Sisters” in The Rule of the Sisters of the Third Order of St. Dominic that he developed in 1860.Sources: https://orderofpreachersindependent.org/2015/05/12/blessed-jane-of-portugal-2/; http://www.historyofroyalwomen.com/elizabeth-of-york/blessed-joan-portugal/; Saint Dominic’s Family, Dorcy
Blessed Emily Bicchieri (Emily of Vercelli)
1238 - 1314
Dominican Sister of the 3rd Order, Enclosed
Foremother of Apostolic Dominican Sisters
Established 1st Community of 3rd Order Sisters Designed for Both Good Works and Prayer in 1256
In 1238, Blessed Emily was born the fourth of seven daughters to a family in Vercelli, Italy. While she was pregnant with Emily, her mother had a dream in which she saw her daughter, clothed in white, surrounded by other women similarly clothed, walking in procession around a church. When Emily’s mother recounted her vision to her Dominican spiritual advisor, he predicted that she would give birth to a daughter who would do great things for God.
Even as a young girl, Emily responded to the needs of the poor and troubled. She gave away any money or gifts given to her to those less fortunate. Emily knew as a teenager that she wanted to be a nun. Emily’s beloved father died when she was just 17, having given her the permission to enter a convent. Once confident that her mother would be provided for, Emily used her inheritance to build a convent for Sisters of the Third Order of Saint Dominic. Such a convent for members of the Third Order was the first of its kind. The Dominican Friars of Vercelli enthusiastically supported Emily in her project.
The papal document authorizing this unique foundation was dated 1256. More than thirty women joined Emily in this new community. A Dominican Nun from the Second Order was appointed to provide a novitiate in the tradition of the Order. Emily’s mother was able to attend the reception ceremony and, seeing all the Sisters clothed in Dominican habits, was amazed to see her dream of years before realized.
Emily was chosen as prioress by her Sisters and their community life focused on good works as well as prayer. Unlike many convents, this community had no lay Sisters all the Sisters were of the same rank and shared in all the work of maintaining the house. They prayed regularly and were encouraged to spend considerable time each day in contemplative solitude. Any donations or gifts from rich benefactors were promptly distributed to the poor.
Emily’s life was one of deep devotion, contemplation, and charitable service. The style of Dominican, conventual life that she imagined and inaugurated was the precursor for communities of Dominican apostolic life. She died on May 3, 1314, after a half-century of prayer and good works in the convent which she had founded. She was beatified in 1769.
(Sources: http://www.op.org.au/texts/may_biog.pdf; http://365rosaries.blogspot.com/2011/08/august-19-blessed-emilia-bicchieri.html; St. Dominic’s Family, Dorcey)
Saint Catherine of Siena
1347 - 1380
Dominican Lay Woman
“God is wonderful in His saints, so that we are bewildered by the splendor of their virtues and of their prodigies. St. Catherine of Siena belongs to this class of saints.”
(Ven. Samuel Mazzuchelli OP; The Rule of the Sisters of the Third Order of St. Dominic, 1860)
Dominican Lay Woman ? “Mamma” to a Band of Friends and Disciples ? Helper of the Sick ? Friend of the Poor ? Companion of the Condemned ? Spiritual Guide ? Mystic ? Contemplative ? Source of Spiritual Literature ? Anchorite ? Stigmatic ? Seeker of Truth ? Doctor of the Church ? Negotiator of Peace ? Persuader of Popes and Princes ? Community Builder ? Extraordinary Teacher ? Victim of Interrogation ? Itinerant Reformer ? Co-Patron of the City of Rome ? Patron of Italy ? Co-Patron of Europe
Many would agree that Catherine of Siena is the most significant woman in the history of the Order of Preachers. As a lay woman in the Order, Catherine’s witness offers inspiration to every follower of Dominic’s dream. She is of particular importance to other Dominican women and to members of the Dominican Laity.
Catherine Benincasa was born at Siena, Italy, in 1347, the 23rd of the 25 children of Jacopo and Lapa Benincasa. She grew up as an intelligent, cheerful, and intensely religious person. As a girl, Catherine attempted an anchorite’s life, living austerely in a small room in her family home. As a teenager, she joined the "Mantellate," the local community of Dominican tertiaries. Catherine became involved in acts of charity, moving beyond the confines of her home. Claiming a mystical marriage with Christ, she experienced an exchange of hearts with her Beloved. Inspired by a vision in 1370, Catherine entered into an active apostolate and become involved in the affairs of her age. Several times she was able to bring about peace among the Italian city-states and was instrumental in persuading Pope Gregory XI to return to Rome.
On April 1, 1375, Catherine received the stigmata. The Dialogue (1378), which she left for her large family of disciples, is a masterpiece of spiritual and theological doctrine and has become a source of riches for the entire Dominican Family. She died in Rome on April 29, 1380, and was buried in the basilica of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. Catherine was canonized in 1461.
“This is why I have put you among your neighbors: so that you can do for them what you cannot do for me that is, love them without any concern for thanks and without looking for any profit for yourself. And whatever you do for them I will consider done for me.”
Catherine of Siena, Dialogue
Saint Catherine of Siena is one of the 23 Dominican women whose biographies Ven. Samuel Mazzuchelli, OP, included for “the edification of the Sisters” in the The Rule of the Sisters of the Third Order of St. Dominic that he developed in 1860.Sources: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catherine_of_Siena; http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03447a.htm
Blessed Osanna of Kotor
1493 - 1565
Orthodox Woman Converts to Catholicism and Lives as Dominican Anchorite
Jovana Kosic was born in 1493 into a deeply committed, Serbian Orthodox, priestly family her father, uncle, grandfather, and great grandfather were Orthodox priests. She lived in what today is southern Montenegro, a European country on the Adriatic Sea. As a child, Jovana worked as a shepherdess and even then was known for her prayerfulness.
As a young teenager, Jovana worked as a servant in a household in Kotor on the Adriatic coast. There she frequently visited Catholic churches and eventually converted to Catholicism, taking the new name, Katarina. A few years later, Katarina felt drawn to the ascetic, solitary life of an anchorite. This form of religious life, common in the Middle Ages, was the choice to live an austere and solitary life of prayer and penance while permanently enclosed in a cell attached to a church. Katarina began her life as an anchorite in such a cell attached to St. Bartholomew’s Church in Kotor. Katarina’s cell had one window through which she could view Mass celebrated in the church and another window to which people would occasionally come to ask for prayers or to give her food.
An earthquake destroyed this first enclosure, and Katarina moved to a new cell at St. Paul’s Church. There she chose to become a Dominican Tertiary and took a new name to mark this new moment: Osanna, in memory of another holy member of the Dominican Laity who lived 50 years earlier in Mantua, Italy, and who was known as a stigmatic and mystic. Osanna of Kotor lived the Rule of the Dominican Laity for the remaining 52 years of her life. A group of Dominican Sisters took up residence near her, consulting her for guidance, and came to consider her their leader although Osanna never visited their convent.
In her cell, it is said that Osanna received mystical visions of Jesus, the Virgin, and many saints. When an Ottoman attack threatened Kotor in 1539, the citizens of the city begged Osanna for help. They credited their deliverance to her prayers and counsel. Later, her intercession was credited with saving them from the plague.
After a life of prayer and penance, Osanna died on April 27, 1565, at the age of 75. She was beatified in 1934. In light of Osanna’s personal lived experience in both the Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions, she is invoked especially for church unity.Sources: http://acta-sanctorum.blogspot.com/2010/04/blessed-osanna-of-kotor.html; http://www.op.org.au/texts/apr_biog.pdf; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Osanna_of_Cattaro; Saint Dominic’s Family, Dorcy
Saint Agnes of Montepulciano
1268 - 1317
Woman Begins Monastic Life in Franciscan Spirit and Completes Life as Dominican Nun
Agnes of Montepulciano is known for her holiness, mystical visions, miraculous healings, and her ability to negotiate peace among warring factions in her city. Catherine of Siena, born 30 years after Agnes’ death, referred to her as "Our mother, the glorious Agnes."
Agnes was born to a noble family in Gracciano, Italy, in 1268. From early childhood, Agnes desired religious life and at the age of 9 was permitted to enter a Franciscan monastery at nearby Montepulciano. As a teenager, she and other Sisters from that monastery were sent to establish another monastic foundation in the region of Viterbo. However, at the request of the people of Montepulciano, in 1306 she returned to that city to lead a new monastery. Inspired by a vision of St. Dominic, Agnes placed this monastery under the direction of the Order of Preachers. Agnes died on April 20, 1317, and her tomb soon became a place of pilgrimage. She was canonized in 1796.
Stories about Agnes include a visit from the Virgin during which Agnes held the infant Jesus. Reluctant to let Him go, Agnes kept a small gold cross the Child wore around His neck. Another story involves a visit from the Virgin during which Agnes received a gift of three small stones which signaled the future construction of a monastery. A story which brings a smile concerns a pilgrimage that Catherine of Siena made to the tomb of Agnes. In veneration of this holy woman, Catherine bent over the incorrupt body to kiss the foot of Agnes. We’re told that Agnes raised her foot so that Catherine did not have to stoop so far.
Images of Agnes may show her holding a small gold cross and with three small stones. The presence of a lamb with Agnes is a reference to the Latin of her name, agnus. Saint Agnes of Montepulciano was one of the 23 Dominican women whose biographies Ven. Samuel Mazzuchelli, OP, included for “the edification of the Sisters” in The Rule of the Sisters of the Third Order of St. Dominic that he developed in 1860.(Sources: http://www.nashvilledominican.org/community/our-dominican-heritage/our-saints-and-blesseds/st-agnes-montepulciano/, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agnes_of_Montepulciano, http://www.christianiconography.info/agnesMontepulciano.html, Saint Dominic’s Family, Dorcy)
Blessed Margaret of Castello
1287 - 1320
Dominican Lay Woman
Blind, Physically Disabled, Unwanted: Dominican Lay Woman Inspires Others by Compassion and Holiness
Margaret was born into a noble family of Metola, Italy, in 1287. Much to her family’s dismay, this girl-child was born blind and physically disabled. For the first years of her life, Margaret’s existence was kept secret and she was kept in a secluded area of her family home. When she was a teenager, her parents learned of a shrine in Castello, Italy, where miraculous cures were reported. Margaret’s parents took her to this shrine but when Margaret was not cured, her parents abandoned her there.
This unwanted young woman was able to survive because the generous people of Castello offered her food and shelter. Margaret also lived briefly with a community of nuns but left them when their lax lifestyle failed to support her deep spirituality. She became acquainted with Dominican Friars in Castello and with their support became a member of the Dominican Laity.
Margaret was known for her kindness to children and her devotion to the sick and the dying as well as prisoners in the city jail. During her lifetime, she had a reputation for great holiness and miraculous events were attributed to her. Margaret died on April 13, 1320, at the age of 33. More than 200 miracles have been credited to her intercession since her death. She was beatified in 1609. Images of Margaret often show her bent-over, using a crutch, with eyes closed and arm extended as she finds her way.
Blessed Margaret of Castello was one of the 23 Dominican women whose biographies Ven. Samuel Mazzuchelli OP included for “the edification of the Sisters” in The Rule of the Sisters of the Third Order of St. Dominic that he developed in 1860.
(Sources: http://www.nashvilledominican.org/community/our-dominican-heritage/our-saints-and-blesseds/bl-margaret-castello/; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margaret_of_Castello; Saint Dominic’s Family, Dorcy)
Sister Mary Goemaere
1809 - 1891
Dominican Sister Professed Only Three Weeks Volunteers for Mission Journey from Paris to California via the Isthmus of Panama
Catherine Adelaide Goemaere was born in 1809 in Warneton, Belgium, of parents who were skilled craft workers. Although little is known of Catherine’s early life, the abilities and knowledge that she demonstrated later indicate that she received a well-rounded education. At the age of 40 years, Catherine entered a contemplative Dominican monastery in Paris and became Soeur Maria.
In August 1850, near the end of her novitiate, Mary’s life changed forever. Dominican Bishop Joseph Alemany visited her convent requesting Sisters to help in the missions in North America. Mary volunteered and, only three weeks after her profession of vows, she was part of a group of five Dominican Sisters and Friars sailing to New York. Mary and two novices from another French community were the first Dominican Sisters from Europe to immigrate to the USA.
After a few weeks respite with the Sisters of St. Mary of the Springs in Somerset, Ohio, Bishop Alemany, another Friar (Francis Vilarassa, OP) and Sister Mary continued their journey with California as their destination. They travelled south by land, by sea, across the Isthmus of Panama by mule, and north by sea to San Francisco. In December 1850, nearly five months after she left her Paris monastery, Mary and the two Friars arrived in California.
By 1851, a convent and academy under the title “Santa Catalina” were established in Monterey, California. Within three years, nine women (three from the USA, one from Mexico, five from Spain) who spoke three different languages (French, English, Spanish) joined Mary Goemaere and established the Congregation of the Holy Name. Mary served as prioress for 11 years. She died at 80+ years of age in 1891. Having been a professed Dominican Sister for only one year, Mary Goemaere traveled thousands of miles from the familiarity of Paris to the wild gold rush of California and became the foundress of the community we know today as our Dominican Sisters of San Rafael.
Source: Dominicans at Home in a Young Nation; 1786-1865, Vol. 1, edited by Mary Nona McGreal OP, Chapter 12
Blessed Sybillina Bicossi
(1287 - 1367)
Blind from Childhood, Dominican Woman Offers Advice and Healing to Those in Need
Sybillina Bicossi was born in Pavia, Italy, in 1287, and was orphaned at an early age. The neighbors who took her in put her into domestic service as a young child. Sybillina had already been working for some years when she became blind at age 12. Aware that she could not support herself because of her blindness, a community of Lay Dominican women welcomed Sybillina into their home. Impressed with their kindness, Sybillina joined their community.
Sybillina made prayer her contribution to the community. She grew in her devotion to St. Dominic with hopes that through his intercession her sight would be restored. Rather than being cured, Sybillina had a mystical experience in which Dominic revealed that her present life in shadow would culminate in a life of eternal light.
With this reassurance, Sybillina requested permission to live a solitary, ascetic life in a room adjoining the Dominican church in Pavia. To the window in her cell, the troubled, sick, and repentant came seeking her help and counsel. Deeply devoted to the Eucharist, she spent her time in prayer, and her cell soon became a point of pilgrimage for Pavians. She lived there for over 60 years, doing penance, performing miracles, and spreading devotion to the Holy Spirit. Sybillina died at 80 years of age on March 19, 1367, and was beatified in 1854 by Pope Pius IX. The Order celebrates her feast on April 19.
Blessed Sybillina Bicossi is one of the 23 Dominican women whose biographies Venerable Samuel Mazzuchelli, OP, included for “the edification of the Sisters” in The Rule of the Sisters of the Third Order of St. Dominic that he developed in 1860.
Sources: Saint Dominic’s Family, Dorcy; http://www.op.org.au/texts/apr_biog.pdf;
Blessed Clara Gambacorta (1362 - 1419) and Blessed Maria Mancini (1355 - 1431)
Widows and Dominican Nuns
Two Widows Influenced by Catherine of Siena Revitalized Dominican Cloister
Victoria Gambacorta and Catherine Mancini were both born into prominent families of Pisa, Italy, about 13 years apart. Both women were widowed at early ages. Catherine, by the age of 25, had been widowed twice with none of her seven children surviving. Victoria, at the age of 15, was widowed when her young husband died of plague. In her own way, each woman attempted to respond to the needs of those in poverty in Pisa. Both women were significantly influenced by Catherine of Siena when she came to Pisa to negotiate peace among the Italian city-states. Both women initially entered different Dominican communities in Pisa but eventually came to be members of the same community of Nuns of the Monastery of Saint Dominic in Pisa.
Victoria, as a young widow, was encouraged by Catherine of Siena to dedicate her life to God. To avoid another arranged marriage, Victoria fled to a convent of Poor Clares where she became “Sister Clara.” Her brothers soon removed her from the convent by force and imprisoned Clara in her family home. After the intervention of a bishop who visited the family, Clara’s father finally permitted her to enter a convent.
Catherine Mancini, refusing a third marriage, dedicated her days to prayer and caring for persons who were sick and impoverished. Tradition says that, after carefully treating the wounds of a sick and hungry young man, he was revealed to Catherine as Jesus himself. Influenced by her friendship with Catherine of Siena, Catherine Mancini entered a convent where she became “Sister Maria.”
Due to the social turmoil caused by schism and plague, the common life of many religious communities of that era had deteriorated. In response to Clara’s desire for a more austere and regular religious life, her parents built a convent where Clara, along with Maria Mancini and other Sisters who shared this vision, founded a new Dominican cloister in 1385.
As prioress, Clara was noted for her great prudence and wise counsel. Although the convent was cloistered, it was a community known for its charity. No poor person who approached the convent was left unaided. Clara organized extern-sisters who worked in institutions around Pisa ministering to those in need. After the tragic murder of her father and brothers, the forgiveness Clara extended to their murderer and his family was an inspiration to all. She prized study and urged her sisters to do likewise. Maria Mancini devoted herself to contemplation and penance, and upon the death of her friend Clara on April 17, 1419, she became prioress of the monastery. Maria served as a just and holy leader of the community until she died 12 years later on January 22, 1431. The Order celebrates the feast day of these two Dominican women together on April 17.
Blessed Clara Gambacorta was one of the 23 Dominican women whose biographies Ven. Samuel Mazzuchelli, OP, included for “the edification of the Sisters” in The Rule of the Sisters of the Third Order of St. Dominic that he developed in 1860. Interestingly, “Blessed Clara Gambacorta” was also the title of the 1928 thesis by our Sister Mary Evelyn Murphy, OP, for her PhD from the University of Fribourg, Switzerland. We have no definitive information regarding the identity of the “Clara” under whose patronage Father Samuel placed St. Clara Convent at Sinsinawa. Could this Dominican, Clara Gambacorta, be our patron?
(Sources: Saint Dominic’s Family, Dorcy; http://www.op.org.au/texts/apr_biog.pdf; http://acta-sanctorum.blogspot.com/2010/04/blessed-clara-gambacorta.html)
Doctor Agnes McLaren
1837 - 1913
Dominican Lay Woman
19th Century Woman Physician
Dedicated Entire Life to the Cause of Social Justice for Women
Agnes McLaren was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, into a prominent, politically active, and socially conscious family. The McLarens were Presbyterians who took seriously their responsibility to live the Gospel. Drawing on her enormous experience, network of contacts, and family standing, Agnes devoted her entire life to the cause of social justice for women, including suffrage, admission to university and professional education, human trafficking, and rights for prostitutes and prisoners.
At the age of 27, Agnes decided to become a medical doctor at a time when universities did not accept women as candidates for medical school. After lengthy but unsuccessful efforts to be admitted to medical schools in the United Kingdom, Agnes traveled to France to pursue a medical degree. She carried a letter of support from British Cardinal Manning to French Cardinal de Cabriores who helped Agnes enroll in the University of Montpellier. Although Agnes was not Catholic, she had many significant relationships with Catholics, including the hospital Franciscan Sisters with whom she boarded while in medical school.
At the age of 41, Agnes began to practice medicine. In Lyons, France, Agnes met Pre Perra, a priest who played a significant role in her spiritual journey. Although Agnes resisted becoming a Catholic, she asked Pre Perra to direct a retreat for her. For nearly 20 years thereafter, Agnes made an annual retreat with Pre Perra.
At the age of 61, after decades of close relationships with Catholics, Agnes herself chose to become Catholic. About that time, she became acquainted with Jean Joseph Lataste, OP, and the Dominican Sisters of Bethany in France. Members of this congregation included formerly incarcerated women; their apostolate focused on women and children in need. Although drawn to that congregation, Agnes felt that her age would make adjusting to community life a challenge. However, becoming a member of the Dominican Laity seemed an attractive possibility. So, at the age of 63, Agnes became a Lay Dominican.
At the age of 68, Agnes met a priest from India who described the tremendous health needs of women in India. Agnes traveled to Rawalpindi, northern India (now Pakistan) and witnessed for herself the suffering, sickness, and death that could have been prevented with good medical care. Because of India’s customs, women could not be seen by men other than their immediate family, which meant they also could not receive medical care from male physicians. In response to what she had seen, Agnes established a support group of women in London “The London Committee” that raised funds for a hospital where women would be attended by women. In 1909, St Catherine's, a 16-bed hospital, was opened in Rawalpindi.
Agnes was convinced that an association of women who were healthcare professionals was necessary to address this need, and she worked tirelessly to recruit women for this purpose. She contacted religious congregations for help but learned that Sisters were forbidden by Canon Law to study and practice medicine and midwifery. In her 70s, Agnes travelled to Rome five times to petition for a change in this law, unaltered since 1263! (It took 25 more years in 1936 for the Church to approve and encourage such work.)
At the age of 75, Agnes received a letter from a young Austrian woman, Anna Dengel, who inquired about Agnes’s dream of women medical missionaries. Anna and Agnes never actually met, communicating only by letter. Agnes connected Anna with the London Committee and, with this support, Anna arranged to study medicine in Ireland. Sadly, Agnes died a few months before Anna was due to begin her studies, in 1913.
Nevertheless, Anna completed her medical degree in 1919, supported by the London Committee. In 1920, Anna traveled to Rawalpindi and worked in St. Catherine’s hospital. She returned to Europe and visited the USA to raise funds for the hospital. In 1925, in Washington DC, Anna founded the congregation known as the Medical Mission Sisters. Thus, 12 years after her death, Agnes’s dream of women serving as medical missionaries was realized.
(Sources: http://www.medicalmissionsisters-uk.org/#!history-anna-dengel/c1ltp; Saint Dominic’s Family, Dorcy; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agnes_McLaren; Faces of Holiness: Modern Saints in Photos and Words, Volume 1, Ann Ball)
Blessed Ascension Nicol
1868 - 1940
Missionary Dominican Sister
First European Woman to Traverse the Peruvian Amazon Rainforest
Florentina Nicol y Goi, born in 1868 in Navarre, Spain, entered the cloistered Dominican Convent of Santa Rosa in Huesca in 1885, receiving the religious name, Ascension. As a member of that community, she taught in the convent school for 28 years. When the anti-clerical Spanish government stripped the Convent of its school in 1913, the Sisters lost their traditional apostolate. They immediately wrote to ecclesiastical authorities in both the Americas and the Philippines, offering to serve the poorest of the poor.
The response came from Bishop Ramon Zubieta OP, newly appointed Apostolic Vicar for the Peruvian Amazon rainforest. Five of the Sisters volunteered for the mission and Mother Ascension, aged 45 years, was chosen to lead them. Accompanied by the bishop and three other friars, they arrived in Peru in December 1913. After a two-year period of preparation in Lima for the mission, Mother Ascension set off in 1915 with two other Sisters for the mountain rainforest.
After a journey of 24 days crossing the Andes to a region where European women had never before traveled, they arrived in Puerto Maldonado, a small village in the Amazon basin. Here, Ascension dedicated herself to the education of children and the advancement of women, bringing God to the poor and abandoned. The Sisters started a boarding school for poor girls, including indigenous girls who came from the forest seeking education. Mother Ascension made it clear that they would be welcome, despite hostility from white plantation workers. The Sisters also opened their home to the sick who came to them for assistance. Wherever there was a need, the Sisters sought to meet it.
Neither Mother Ascension nor Bishop Zubieta had the intention of starting a new Religious Institute. Rather, it was the Master General of the Dominicans who advised this because the life and apostolic activities of the Sisters no longer conformed to the regulations of Canon Law for cloistered communities. So, with the support of Bishop Zubieta, the Sisters decided to form a new and independent congregation. In 1918, they founded the “Dominican Missionary Sisters of the Rosary”. As Co-Foundress, Mother Ascension served as Prioress General of the new congregation, a role to which she dedicated the rest of her life. She died on February 24, 1940. She was beatified in 2005. Today, members of Ascension’s congregation (Misioneras Dominicas) number nearly 700 Sisters serving in 20 countries in four continents in some of the most challenging places on Earth.
Sister Plautilla Nelli
1523 - 1587
Self-taught Artist Nun
First-Known Female Renaissance Painter of Florence, Italy
Pulisena Margherita Nelli was the daughter of a successful fabric merchant in Florence, Italy. At an early age, she entered the Dominican convent of Santa Caterina da Siena and received the name Suor Plautilla. This convent devoutly adhered to the reformist principles of Dominican Friar Savonarola (1452 - 1498) who also promoted devotional painting and drawing by religious women as a way for them to avoid spiritual laxity. Thus this convent was renowned for its nun-artists, many of whom were daughters of prominent Florentine artisans.
Plautilla was an artist in a period when women could not participate in the formal apprenticeship required or be admitted to the circle of master artists for mutual advice. Plautilla taught herself by studying and copying paintings of several masters; she was especially influenced by the work of Fra’ Bartolomeo OP (1472 - 1517). In her convent, Plautilla became part of a vital art community and spiritual sisterhood, which she eventually led, serving three times as the community’s prioress. She executed monumental religious works, which were most unusual for women to paint during this time period. She also trained other nuns as artists, thus providing income for her convent from the sale of paintings to outside patrons.
Nelli produced mainly religious pieces including large-scale paintings, wood lunettes, book illustrations, and drawings. Until recently, very few of her works were identified and exhibited in museums. Now, several paintings and drawings have been restored or are in the process. One of her most important works is Lamentation with Saints (San Marco Museum, restored 2006). The Last Supper, in the refectory of Santa Maria Novella (not open to the public), seems to be the only work Plautilla signed.
(Sources: “Suor Plautilla Nelli: Florence’s First-known Woman Painter”, by Dr. Jane Fortune [Advancing Women Artists Foundation], Timeless Travels, Spring 2015; Saint Dominic’s Family, Dorcy; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plautilla_Nelli)
Early Christian Women on the Aventine Hill
c.340 - 410 CE
Community of Holy Women Precedes the Order of Preachers on the Aventine
Tradition places the Basilica of Santa Sabina on the ruins of a house (“domus”) that belonged to Saint Marcella, who gathered in her home a community of women who shared her desire for a life of prayer, study, almsgiving, and asceticism. Though they followed no formal rule, this was perhaps one of the earliest communities of Christian women. Other women involved in this community included Principia, Paula and her daughter (Eustochium), Asella, and Fabiola. St. Jerome served as their spiritual director and compared them to the holy women who surrounded Jesus.
Between 422 and 432 CE, a Christian basilica was constructed on the ruins of this community’s dwelling. Nearly 800 years later, around 1220, Pope Honorius III gave this basilica of Santa Sabina to Dominic for his newly established Order of Preachers. The basilica was 800 years old when Dominic received it 800 years ago! For centuries, the curia (government officials) of the Order has been located at Santa Sabina.
In 1995, Dominican Sisters International (DSI) was established to connect the approximately 150 congregations of Dominican Sisters of apostolic life worldwide, in an effort to create avenues for collaboration among them and other members of the Dominican Family for the sake of the preaching mission of the Order. From its beginning, the offices of DSI have been located at Santa Sabina. How fitting that the movement to build solidarity among 24,300 Dominican Sisters worldwide is located at the birthplace of one of the earliest communities of women in Christian history.
Sources: The Forgotten Desert Mothers, Laura Swan; Give Us This Day, “Blessed Among Us: St. Marcella Jan. 31,” Robert Ellsberg.
Saint Catherine de' Ricci
1522 - 1590
Dominican Sister of the 3rd Order, Enclosed
Sister Mystic and Reformer
Advisor to Princes, Bishops, Cardinals and Future Popes
Alessandra Lucrezia Romola de' Ricci was born into a distinguished banking and mercantile family of Florence, Italy. In an era of corruption and spiritual laxity, Alessandra sought out an observant religious community; she entered one inspired by the reformist preaching of the Florentine Dominican, Fra Girolamo Savonarola. In this Dominican convent of St. Vincent at Prato, she received the religious name Catherine. She became especially well known for her ecstasies of the Passion and also experienced the stigmata. Her mystical spirituality included a "mystical marriage" with Christ.
Inspired by her Dominican brother, Fra Savonarola, Catherine de' Ricci worked constantly to promote the regular observance as she served in leadership roles in her convent throughout her life. Cardinals, bishops, religious superiors, three future popes, and other suppliants, especially the poor, requested the counsel of Catherine. An efficient business woman and administrator, Catherine had a reputation as a kind and considerate prioress, particularly gentle with the sick. Catherine was canonized in 1746; her feast day in the Dominican Liturgical Calendar is Feb.4.
Saint Catherine de' Ricci is one of the 23 Dominican women whose biographies Ven. Samuel Mazzuchelli, OP, included for “the edification of the Sisters” in the The Rule of the Sisters of the Third Order of St. Dominic that he developed in 1860.
Blessed Villana de’ Botti
1332 - 1360
Wife Spurns Opulent Lifestyle; Works Tirelessly for Those in Poverty
Villana was born into wealth in 14th century Florence, Italy, and later married into wealth that permitted the continuation of a lavish lifestyle. Looking in a mirror one day, she was confronted with a reflection of her inner vacuous self rather than of her external beauty. The experience transformed Villana’s life.
Seeking forgiveness and guidance, Villana went to the Dominican Friars at Santa Maria Novella and asked to become a Lay Dominican. She distributed much of her wealth to those in poverty and performed many works of charity. Committed to her marriage, she also devoted herself to prayer and the study of scripture. Villana seemed to know the hearts of those whom came to her for counsel and was considered a living saint. Villana was beatified in 1829; her feast day is January 29.
Blessed Villana de’ Botti is one of the 23 Dominican women whose biographies Venerable Samuel Mazzuchelli, OP, included for “the edification of the Sisters” in the The Rule of the Sisters of the Third Order of St. Dominic that he developed in 1860.
Sources: St. Dominic’s Family, Dorcy; http://acta-sanctorum.blogspot.com/2010/01/blessed-villana-debotti.html; http://www.op.org.au/texts/jan_biog.pdf
Saint Margaret of Hungary
1242 - 1270
Woman of Noble Birth Rejects Status and Embraces Menial Tasks in Service to the Poor
Before her birth, Margaret was promised to God by her royal parents in return for victory over invading enemies. When the enemies were defeated, she was placed in a Dominican convent although she was only a small child. At 18 years of age, Margaret was pressured to enter into a politically advantageous marriage. She chose instead to make her profession of religious vows as a Dominican.
Margaret sought out activities and austerities that would counter any special considerations due her noble lineage. She chose heavy manual labor, menial tasks, demanding work on behalf of the poor and service to the most disagreeable in the infirmary. Frequently observed in ecstasy, Margaret was noted for her holiness and asceticism. Worn out by her efforts, she died on Jan 18, 1270. Although there was evidence of great holiness and miraculous events, Margaret was not canonized until 1943 (by Pope Pius XII). Her feast day is January 18.
Today, St. Margaret of Hungary is the patron of an apostolic congregation of Dominican Sisters founded in Hungary in 1868. The Sisters of this congregation suffered persecution and were forced “underground” during the communist era. Today, this congregation numbers about 40 Sisters whose ministries include teaching in Catholic schools, catechetical work, higher education, and parish work.
(Sources: St. Dominic’s Family, Dorcy; http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=727 , http://www.catholicireland.net/saintoftheday/st-margaret-of-hungary/)
Saint Zdislava Berka (also, Zdislava of Lemberk)�
c. 1220 - 1252;
Responding to Refugees in the 13th Century
Zdislava lived in the part of the world which is now the Czech Republic. Growing up in a Christian family, she had a reputation for kindness and charity even as a child. As a wife and mother of four, her world was rocked by ongoing conflict between local rulers and the expanding Mongolian Empire.
Hyacinth and Ceslaus, who were received into the Order by Dominic himself, introduced Zdislava to the Dominicans as they preached the Gospel in the Slavic world. She became an early lay Dominican. Inspired by this spirituality, Zdislava cared for the poor, visited prisoners, catechized children, and saw that shelter was provided for the homeless. On the occasion of a Mongol attack, she welcomed into her own home refugees displaced by the violence.
With her husband, Zdislava founded a Dominican convent and built a church where she was eventually buried. Zdislava was canonized on May 21, 1995, and her feast day is celebrated on Jan 4.
(Sources: St. Dominic’s Family, Dorcy)