Catherine of Siena was born into a world full of corruption, brutality, and turbulence. But despite the state of the world, she grew up to be a political force to be reckoned with. In her latest book, Saint Catherine of Siena and Her Times, Margaret Roberts argues that not only was Catherine an amazing saint, she was also one of history’s greatest political figures.
Using letters that Catherine sent to political figures and the pope himself, Roberts retells the amazing story of Catherine of Siena – whose life and legacy is incredibly poignant in today’s day and age.
Never thought of Catherine as a major historical figure? Check out these eight amazing facts about her early life and childhood! They’re all taken from Margaret Roberts’ book, which you can find at your local Catholic bookstore or online through Sophia Institute Press.
1. She survived the black death
Galleys full of diseased sailors had brought the black death to Siena in 1348. Agnolo di Tura writes of how the city reacted to the disease the killed quickly, saying: “The father scarce stayed to look on the son, and the wife abandoned her husband, for it was said that the sickness could be taken by mere looking on the stricken, or breathing their breath…and none were found to bury even for hire.”
Despite her young age, Catherine survived the black death. Her early biographers regarded her survival of the plague as one of the first miracles associated with the saint.
2. She had a twin sister
Months before the black death came to Siena, Catherine’s mother, Lapa, had given birth to twins. They were born on Palm Sunday. Catherine’s twin sister, Giovanna, died shortly after birth. There isn’t enough information to know if the girls were identical, but it’s safe to say that both of them are saints in Heaven.
When Catherine was two years old, her mother gave birth to another daughter who she named Giovanna in honor of her child who had passed away in infancy.
3. She was baptized on Easter Sunday
In Siena, all children were baptized either on Easter or Pentecost. Since Catherine was born the week before Easter, she would have been baptized as a newborn. But she was baptized alongside other newborns and other children up to one year old. This practice is known thanks to graffiti on the pavement leading up to the baptismal font in Catherine’s childhood parish. There was only one baptism day for the entire diocese. The first boy baptized that year was always named Giovanni, and the second was always named Martino. The first girl to be baptized was named Maria. These children were named after the patrons of the city of Siena.
4. She was one of twenty-five children
Yes, all from the same set of parents. Her mother was known to be a loving housewife, but had a sharp temper. Her father’s calm nature was complimentary to his wife. Catherine’s confessor, Raimondo da Capua, describes Cather’s father as “good, simple-minded, just, nourished in the fear of God, and over and above other virtues, gifted with gentleness and meekness of heart.” The only time he would raise his voice is if one of his children or apprentices spoke a profane word.
5. Catherine prayed for poverty for her family
Catherine’s mother brought money of her own into the marriage. At the time of her birth, Catherine’s father owned land, like most citizens of Siena at the time. But their family became so wealthy that, as a child, Catherine often prayed for her family to become poor. She feared their hearts would become fixated on wealth and things of the earth instead of focused on Christ. Her prayer was answered, and most of Catherine’s biographers assert that her family was poor for most of Catherine’s life.
6. She didn’t learn to read and write until later in life
“If thou knowest how to read, read good and holy things; learn the office of our Lady, and delight thyself therein,” a popular Tuscan proverb reads. Catherine took this proverb to heart, and defied social standards by learning how to read and write. In her days, it was thought objectionable for women to know how to read and write, even if they were of a higher social class.
Even though she knew how to read and write, she never enjoyed writing letters. When she needed to correspond with someone, she preferred to dictate her thoughts to someone as they wrote.
7. She loved silence and solitutde
You’d think that silence would be hard to come by in a family with twenty-five children, but Catherine was known for seeking time alone. She was known as a dreamy child, and often sought out time for solitude and prayer.
8. Friars and Priests were her childhood friends
“Friars played a great part in Catherine’s life from the time when as a little child she would run out and kiss the traces of their passing footsteps,” Margaret Roberts writes. Her first confessor was a friar, Della Fonte. Records show that Catherine’s family was kept in the special prayers of a local religious community of brothers.
It was through these friars that Catherine first heard of Saint Dominic. “They had very much to do with shaping her life and character,” Roberts continues. “Catherine’s later life shows how deeply she was impressed by what she heard; it is evident that she took Dominic for her model and her mind constantly dwelt on his life, divided almost equally between prayer and work, and on his view that the ideal Christian life consisted primarily in love of God and one’s neighbor, and secondarily in discipline, fasts, and ceremonies, not as meritorious in themselves, but as aids in reaching an exalted spiritual ideal.”
Want to know more about Catherine’s life? Read Saint Catherine of Siena and Her Times to learn more about her vocational discernment, political involvement, and the role she played in the history of the Catholic Church and the world!