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Martirology

Queens and peasant women

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06 November 2021

Lay, religious, and martyrs: women on the altars without distinction


As a missionary, she went to live in the Colombian jungle. As a teacher, she chose to teach the poor and despised Indians. When she began her evangelisation work, she had just the mother and five sisters with her, whom she wanted to be “intrepid, courageous, and inflamed by the love of God”. What did it matter if the prelates of her time called them the “religious goats”. Yet, by the time of her death, there were 500 sisters and 100 novices serving 22 indigenous communities.

Mother Laura of St Catherine of Siena, born Laura Montoya Upegui (Jericó 1874 - Medellin 1949), canonised in 2013, was the first of Pope Francis’ saints. It may be just a coincidence that it was a nun born and raised in South America who inaugurated the canonisations of women so wished for by a pontiff from the “end of the world”. However, it is certainly not a coincidence that the story of Mother Laura, founder of the Congregation of the Missionary Sisters of Mary Immaculate and St Catherine of Siena, is marked by her courage, humility and above all her tenacious will to build a community of women united by the desire to dedicate themselves to the lowly, the poor, and the forgotten.

The diversity of their histories, geographical origins and experiences is the common thread that binds so many of the saints and blesseds proclaimed during the eight years of Francis’ pontificate. Among them are famous names such as Saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta (Skopje 1910 - Calcutta 1997) who dedicated her life to the “poorest of the poor” and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. There are others too who have come close to winning the Nobel Prize, for example Sister Dulce, or Maria Rita Lopes Pontes de Sousa Brito (Salvador de Bahia 1914 - 1992), canonised in 2019. The latter devoted herself with equal passion to the underprivileged in the favelas and to exploited workers; she founded the first Catholic workers’ movement in Brazil in the 1930s and was able to transform a convent henhouse into a hospital that today has 1,500 beds and is at the forefront of cancer care. In the list of saints and blesseds who Pope Francis has wanted, the extreme variety of these figures is striking. Alongside a queen, Maria Christina of Savoy, wife of Ferdinand II, who saved opponents of the regime from the gallows and died giving birth to the last king of the Two Sicilies, beatified in 2014; there is also a peasant woman and stonemason in Maria Catherine Kasper (Dernbach, Germany 1820 - 1898) who, although she was penniless, managed -with the help of her bishop and mayor-, to open a house where she took in the poor. Canonised in 2018, St Catherine Kasper also wanted to sign the name of her congregation with poverty, founded the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ, which are now present in the United States, Mexico, Brazil and India.

There are pages of history, some of which have been forgotten, which come alive in the stories of these holy and blessed women. This is the case of the five martyrs of the massacre of Uruaçu, in north-eastern Brazil, who were put to the sword in 1645 by Dutch soldiers and the indigenous gangs under their orders in the bloody religious wars between Catholics and Calvinists, who were proclaimed saints in 2017. Maria Elisabeth Hesselblad (Faglavik, Sweden 1870 - Rome 1957),who re-founded the Order of Saint Bridget in the Roman convent of Piazza Farnese, found herself involved in another more recent persecution; during the years of the racial laws, she gave refuge to many Jewish families, saving them from the Shoah. Canonised in 2016, her name is also among the Righteous among the Nations at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. A forgotten page in the history of Italy is the life of Blessed Assunta Marchetti (Lombrici di Camaiore 1871 - São Paulo, Brazil 1948), who at the end of the 19th century followed her brother Don Giuseppe to Brazil to look after the orphans of Italian emigrants. Spurred on by the “emigration agents”, thousands of men fleeing poverty left Tuscany for the great South American Country. In 1896, when Mother Assunta took to the sea for her missionary enterprise, 3,861 people embarked for Brazil from the province of Lucca.

If it is not surprising that it is mainly religious women who have risen to the honour of the altars, it is also right to remember some lay figures. An example? Blessed Guadalupe Ortiz de Landàzura (Madrid 1916 - Pamplona 1975), a teacher and chemistry researcher. For Opus Dei, of which she was a lay member, she travelled from Mexico, where she opened the first university residence and a school for peasant women, to Rome and then back to her native Spain, where she won the prestigious Juan de la Cierva prize for her research on refractory insulating materials.

Three Red Cross nurses, aged between 23 and 41, who volunteered to go to Asturias to care for the sick and wounded, died during the Spanish Civil War. On 27 October 1936, Marìa Pilar Gullòn Yturriaga (Madrid 1911), Octavia Iglesias Blanco (Astorga 1894) and Olga Pérez-Monteserìn Nùñez (Paris 1913). They, while treating 14 wounded in the hospital of Pola de Somiedo, were arrested by the militia, taken to the barracks and raped, beaten to a pulp, then loaded naked onto a cart and handed over for execution to a platoon of women, who killed them at dawn the next day. In proclaiming them blessed in June 2019, Pope Francis declared them martyrs in odium fidei.

Two laywomen  -both from Eastern Europe-, have been defined as martyrs of purity. The first is the Slovakian Anna Kolesàrova (1928), from Vysoka nad Uhom. She was shot 22 November 1944, at the age of sixteen by a Red Army soldier whom she had offered something to drink and eat, but who shot her because she had resisted his advances.The second is the Romanian Veronica Antal (Moldova 1935-1958), killed with forty-two stab wounds by a young man from her village who wanted to rape her. Veronica’s friends said that in those days, by a curious coincidence, she was reading the biography of St Maria Goretti.

The mystics deserve a special mention. Illiterate ones like St Mary of Jesus Crucified, born Mariam Baouardy (Abellin, today Israel 1846 - Bethlehem 1878) who, not having learned to read and write, wrote poetry and with the power of her thought fascinated intellectuals like Jacques Maritain and Julien Green. Others include humble workers such as Blessed Maria Bolognesi (Bosaro 1924 - Rovigo 1980) who was a labourer, seamstress, and shoemaker. She sweated blood, and suffered painful illnesses for forty years, went through a period of diabolic possession, but wrote down her experiences on two thousand pages.

In addition, there are women who have experienced devastating infirmities in their own bodies, such as the medieval mystic Margaret of Città di Castello (Metola 1287 - Città di Castello 1320), born blind and deformed, who although illiterate could recite all the Psalms by heart. The daughter of a family of modest nobility, Margaret was abandoned by her parents in the name of a precocious “culture of waste” - the same culture that the Pope has denounced on several occasions. Canonised in 2021, over the years she has become a point of reference for the disabled.This demonstrates that even creatures that human cruelty relegates to the scrap heap can be raised to the honour of the altars. (see Ales Bello on page 10).

Contemporary sensitivity, which has been honed by the pandemic, cannot fail to notice the remissiveness, even the cheerfulness with which the saints of Francis often faced terrible diseases, from smallpox to the plague.The story of Benedetta Bianchi Porro (Dovadola, Forlì 1936 - Sirmione 1964) is exemplary. Aa child she was crippled by poliomyelitis; deafened at 13; devastated during her university years by a neurofibromatosis that she diagnosed herself and which left her blind and unable to move. Before she died, at the age of 27, she wrote: “I think what a wonderful thing life is, even in its most terrible aspects; my soul is full of gratitude and love towards God for this”. In 2019, Pope Francis proclaimed her blessed.

by Bianca Stancanelli