A Brief Biography
From Lesser Feasts and Fasts
Catherine Benincasa (1347-1380) was the youngest of twenty-five children of a wealthy dyer of Siena. At six years of age, she had a remarkable vision that probably decided her life’s vocation. Walking home from a visit, she stopped on the road and gazed upward, oblivious to everything around her. “I beheld our Lord seated in glory with St. Peter, St. Paul, and St. John.” She went on to say, later, that the Savior smiled on her and blessed her.
From then on, Catherine spent most of her time in prayer and meditation, despite her mother’s attempts to force her to be like other girls. To settle matters, Catherine cut off her hair, her chief beauty. The family harassed her continually; but in the end, convinced that she was deaf to all opposition, her father let her do as she would: close herself away in a darkened room, fast, and sleep on boards. Eventually, she was accepted as a Dominican postulant.
Catherine had numerous visions, and was also tried most severely by loathsome temptations and degrading images. Frequently, she felt totally abandoned by the Lord. At last, in 1366, the Savior appeared with Mary and the Heavenly Host, and espoused her to himself, so ending her years of lonely prayer and struggle. She became a nurse, as Dominicans regularly did, caring for patients with leprosy and cancer whom other nurses disliked to treat.
Opinion in Siena was sharply divided about whether she was a saint or a fanatic, but when the Bishop of Capua was appointed her confessor, he helped her to win full support from the Dominican Mother House. Catherine was a courageous worker in time of severe plague; she visited prisoners condemned to death; she constantly was called upon to arbitrate feuds and to prepare troubled sinners for confession.
During the great schism of the papacy, with rival popes in Rome and Avignon, Catherine wrote tirelessly to princes, kings, and popes, urging them to restore the unity of the Church. She even went to Rome to press further for the cause.
Besides her many letters to all manner of people, Catherine wrote a Dialogue, a mystical work dictated in ecstasy. Exhausted and paralyzed, she died at the age of thirty-three.
St. Catherine is the patron saint of our parish. Being the caregiver that she was during her ministry as a Dominican, she is also known as the patron saint of firefighters and nurses. In the Episcopal Church, we commemorate the life of St. Catherine and observe her feast day on April 29.