Catherine, the twenty-second of twenty-five children of Giacomo and Lapa, was born in Sienna in 1347, the year the Black Death struck taking 80,000 citizens of Sienna. which was four times more than its population today.
Catherine, when she was seven, had been off alone one day, and when she came back to the family gathering she had a very sweet smile. When asked about it, she said she had been with Jesus, and she had promised him she would remain a virgin.
In 1954 the American poet Phyllis McGinley, wrote about how Catherine dashed the hopes her mother Lapa had for her.
Gossiping in Siena's square, the housewife, Lapa, used to say,
"My Catherine has yellow hair like the True Princess in the play.
Sure as it's June that follows May, Our Kate was born to be a belle.
The girl's a clever one, and gay, I plan for her to marry well."
Though Catherine continued to slip off to pray alone, for a time she let Lapa fuss over her. But, at age sixteen, Catherine took drastic action. Her older married sister had suddenly died, and the young widower had contracted with the family for Catherine’s hand. Catherine slipped out of the house, and she came back a bald girl who had snipped away every strand of her golden hair.
Lapa was at her wits end, but Catherine’s father, Giacomo, honored his daughter’s sincerity, proving himself to be the understanding father of twenty-five children. He allowed Catherine to closet herself away in a tiny room where she conversed with God.
When Catherine turned twenty in 1367, she came out of the closet and began tending to the needs of the family and the poor. She continued reporting on how she was speaking familiarly with Our Lord, and her sincerity came across with many who attached themselves to her. Even priests and educated older people were calling her “Mother.” With Catherine never having learned to read and write, scholarly friends served her in writing hundreds of letters in which she kindly made Our Lord’s concerns known.
Her father came to her aid in another matter dear to Catherine. He spoke up for her at the local Dominican convent, securing for her membership in their Third Order, gaining her the right to wear their habit.
The members of her “family” who were writing her letters also gave themselves to recording dialogues between Catherine and the Lord, and someone forwarded copies of them to Dominican authorities stationed in Florence. In 1371, when Catherine was twenty-four, the Dominican Inquisitors summoned Catherine to appear before them.
They put her through a grueling inquiry, but to the surprise of her detractors, they gave their blessing to her activities. It leaves us wondering what to make of it all.
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