Wisdom from Women
We're drawing toward the end of Women's History Month, and we would be remiss not to dwell a little bit on the history of women in the Church, especially given Pope Francis's call for a deeper theology of women. Of course, some of our most important theologians are women: St Teresa of Avila, St Catherine of Siena, St Thérèse of Lisieux and St Hildegard of Bingen are all doctors of the Church (and were each promoted to that status within the last 50 years). Sts Agnes, Lucy and Anastasia are famously martyred women, and the life of Saint Mother Teresa was the epitome of Christlike love. The social justice work of Dorothy Day inspired countless people, and her cause for canonization is before the Vatican.
There are likely many more forgotten women who exemplified Christian virtue over the past two thousand years, many of whom probably faced oppression and even martyrdom for their faith. For many women, especially in the early Church, Christianity was a choice made at the expense of social status, wellbeing and even family. For still more women, the Church's monastic life was God's way out of forced marriages.
Let's look at four amazing women whose feasts we celebrated this month:
St Katharine Drexel - March 3
Katharine Drexel was born in 1858 to a wealthy family in Philadelphia (her uncle was the founder of Drexel University). She was formed from a young age to be aware of the needs of those less fortunate by her generous parents. The family distributed food, clothing and money from their family home in Philadelphia on a weekly basis, and they discreetly sought out widows and other needy women to provide help.
It was in the 1880s that Katharine developed a particular concern for the plight of of Native Americans after visiting the west with her family. After the death of her father, she and her sisters continued to provide financial aid to missions and charities that served Native Americans.
A few years later, Katharine and her sisters enjoyed a private audience with Pope Leo XIII, where they asked him to send more missionaries to the missions they had been financially supporting. Pope Leo responded by suggesting that Katharine become a missionary herself. Katharine , who had already been considering joining religious life, decided to join the Sisters of Mercy after consulting with her spiritual director. She made headlines when she gave up her fortune to become a nun. She later founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament and took the name Mother Katharine.
She began to open schools for Native American children and worked tirelessly to assist in mission work throughout the west. She established a total of 50 missions for Native Americans. As racial bigotry heightened in the United States, Katharine also focused her efforts on changing attitudes and helping African Americans in any way she could. She and her fellow Sisters found themselves directly targeted by attempted legislation in Georgia that would have prohibited white people from teaching black students. She faced vandalism when she opened Xavier Prep in New Orleans, and went on to found Xavier University (the first black college) in 1915. By 1942 her order had established a system of black Catholic schools in 13 states, despite constant conflict from segregationists and members of the KKK.
Perpetua and Felicity - March 7
Perpetua and Felicity were third century women who converted to Christianity at the hight of Christian persecution.
A new mother, Perpetua insisted on converting despite her father's aggressive attempts to keep her from doing so. She was arrested along with four other catechumens, one of whom was Felicity, a slave who was eight months pregnant. Perpetua and Felicity endured horrible conditions of their prison. Perpetua's father continued to come and beg her to recant. When she was taken with her fellow prisoners to be judged, even the judge pleaded with her to change her mind, but she refused. Her father responded by angrily refusing to bring Perpetua's baby to visit her. Throughout her imprisonment, Perpetua received visions from God.
It was illegal to execute pregnant women, but Felicity longed to be martyred at the same time as her fellow prisoners, to whom she had grown close. Two days before her execution she went into labor. Her baby was adopted by a Christian woman in Carthage.
Perpetua, Felicity, and their three fellow prisoners were brought to the arena and faced wild beasts before finally having their throats cut.
The account of the martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity is one of the earliest and was obviously valued and preserved by early Christians.
St Frances of Rome - March 9
St. Frances of Rome was a lay wife and mother who lived in the 14th century. As a wealthy woman, Frances devoted her time and resources to visiting the poor and caring for the sick. During a time of famine in Italy, Frances turned the family's country estate into a hospital where she distributed food and clothing to the poor.
Frances saw the death of two children, wars between the Roman pope and the anti-popes, and chaos in the city of Rome due to competing forces seeking to control the Roman peninsula. In the midst of this chaos, Frances opened her home again as a hospital and hand picked herbs to make medicine for the sick. In her canonization proceedings, sixty cases of bodily healing were attributed to her intercession.
In 1425, Frances founded the Olivetan Oblates of Mary in order to share her lifestyle of prayer and direct engagement with societal needs with other women. The community is now known as the Oblates of St Frances of Rome. Frances died in 1436 and was canonized in 1608.