SAINT CATHERINE OF SIENA PARISH A Roman Catholic Community
In Halifax Nova Scotia
"Home of the Franciscans of Halifax"
Our Patron Saint
On March 25, 1347, Catherine was born in Siena, Italy, to Giacomo and Lapa Benincasa, a comfortably, prosperous working class family. She was the 24th of 25 children.
At the age of six, Catherine had a vision in which she felt she was called to a solitary and prayerful life. At the age of seven, Catherine made a private vow of virginity and when she was fifteen, she cut off her hair in defiance of her family to prevent a marriage arrangement. At the age of sixteen, Catherine made a public announcement of her intent never to marry and the family finally agreed not to interfere with her wishes. Deprived of privacy in her own home, she retreated into the secret cell of her mind. Her years of silence and solitude did not go unnoticed but there came a point when solitude and separation were not enough.
At the age of seventeen, Catherine joined a Dominican Tertiary, a third order of laywomen, and made private promises of poverty, chastity and obedience. In Christianity, a movement was emerging of a greater consciousness of the Gospel’s call to care for one’s neighbour. The most common expression of this belief was in Tertiary communities. Tertiaries lived in their own homes under the obedience of their superiors. They lived a life of prayer which manifested itself in acts of charity to the poor, sick, and the helpless of society. Although powerless, these holy women were seen as a divine gift to the community and their influence grew. For Catherine, she had realized that loving God and loving neighbour had become one and the same. Loving and serving her neighbour was the only means that she had to return God’s love for her.
The Church had influence in the political scene but it was starting to lessen. In 1309, the papal court had moved from Rome to Avignon in France and in Catherine’s day, this was a major concern in Italian politics as the administration of papal territories in Italy was poor. Appointed leaders, both lay and religious, seemed more interested in their own profit than in the welfare of their subjects. Drawn into papal politics, Catherine went to Avignon to the court of Pope Gregory XI to discuss the morality and politics of the 14th century Church. Catherine’s influence with Gregory was one of the main reasons behind his returning the papal court to Rome in 1376.
Many holy women achieved great status at this time of history but Catherine was the most outstanding, not only because of the extent of her activities in her short life but because of her written legacy.
Her “Letters” show evidence of the wide audience she reached with her teachings and guidance. Her “Prayers”, twenty-six in total, were recorded as it was her habit to pray aloud in the presence of her followers. The “Dialogue” was just that, her dialogue between herself and God. God is the teacher in the dialogue between them.
In many images dating back to the 14th century, Catherine is shown holding a red book in her hand, the Dialogue. A book was a common symbol of a saint who was also a Doctor of the Church. It seems that the people appointed Catherine a Doctor of the Church before the Church officially declared the first women, Catherine of Siena and Saint Teresa of Avila, as Doctors of the Church in 1970.
St. Catherine of Siena is known by the symbols of the Dominican habit, the lily (a sign of purity), a crucifix, a book, the stigmata, the crown of thorns, the ring, a dove, a rose, a miniature church, and a ship bearing the Papal coat of arms. Catherine believed that a loving relationship with God was within the reach of the average person. In her teachings, she has told us of God’s plan for us: “This is why I have put you among your neighbours: 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 it done for me.”
In 1375, after having received Our Lord in Holy Communion, Catherine meditated on the crucifix. She was there for some time when she felt a powerful sensation come over her. Then, she saw flames shoot out from the five wounds of Jesus and penetrate her body, in her hands, her feet and her side. Our Lord gave her the Stigmata, which was only visible after her death, because in her humility, she prayed that they would not be made visible.
Catherine of Siena died on April 29, 1380 at the age of 33, the same age as our Lord. In 1461, Pope Pius II canonized Catherine. In 1940, she was made the Patron Saint of Italy along with St. Francis of Assisi. Not of world renowned fame, but in 1948, the parish community of St. Catherine of Siena was established in Halifax, Nova Scotia.