From the moment I read about St. Margaret of Cortona however many years ago, I gained a deep appreciation for her. I have great respect for her. Her life goes to show that no matter where you begin, you can overcome your obstacles to become a great saint. In fact, my wife and I named one of our children after her. Unfortunately, Margaret Joanna was one of the five babies my wife and I lost to miscarriage.
The book, Saints for Every Occasion: 101 of Heaven’s Most Powerful Patrons, by Thomas J. Craughwell, contains a short biography on St. Margaret of Cortona. It will be the source material for what follows.
Nicknamed “a second Mary Magdalene,” St. Margaret of Cortona lived from 1247 to 1297. Her feast day is today, February 22nd.
She is identified as a Patroness to Unwed Mothers. Upon learning more about her, you will understand why.
This holy woman, though, lead a rather hedonistic lifestyle as a youth. She grew used to getting her way as a young child. It was not until her mother passed away when St. Margaret was seven years old that our saint experienced much difficulty in life.
Her father’s choice for a new wife did not sit well with her, as the two women never got along. Our patroness was a beautiful girl and was never amiss for attention from boys. When Margaret was 12 or 13 years old, a 15-year-old boy named Arsenio took a special interest in her. The feelings were mutual.
While Arsenio came from a nobleman’s family, Margaret came from peasants. Thus, as was the custom in that part of Italy at the time, Arsenio was not supposed to marry Margaret. He was allowed to have her as a mistress and she agreed. Our saint moved into the castle Arsenio lived in to live and sleep with him for nine years.
She was enjoying the high life, soaking in the luxury and getting to avoid the peasant life and her stepmother. In short order Margaret bore Arsenio a baby boy. To this future saint’s disappointment, Aresenio still refused to marry his mistress and was content to keep using her for sexual pleasure.
Eventually, our saint’s conversion came following a tragic event in her life. Arsenio never made it home from a long trip he took. Margaret searched for him in the woods, only to discover his dead body. He had been murdered.
As the biographer relates, the sight of her lover’s dead body left a deep impression on the native of Montepulciano. She mourned the loss of Arsenio and then soon realized the peril of his soul in the afterlife. She realized she too had not lived a life of purity and might die at any time.
Thus, St. Margaret of Cortona had a radical conversion and set out to practice penance for the rest of her life in reparation for the sins she committed.
She returned home to her father’s house with her son alongside her. Full of remorse she begged and her father agreed to let her move back in.
This holy saint then went on to practice some very severe penances. One day she confessed aloud her sins over the previous nine years in front of the congregation at church. Her father had had enough and kicked her and his grandson out.
The Franciscan fathers in Cortona were known for taking in penitents, and she and her son were carried for by two women who had an affiliation with the Franciscan Order. As agreed, after serving a three year period of probation, St. Margaret of Cortona was permitted to become a member of the Franciscan Third Order. Thus, she took vows of a nun but did not have to live in the convent. Our patroness for Unwed Mothers saw to it that her son still receive an educated and her son eventually became a Franciscan himself. St. Margaret of Cortona also founded a hospital for the poor people of Cortona.
St. Margaret of Cortona thought punishing her body was the only way to atone for her sins. She ate a starvation diet, marked up her pretty face, and sought ever humiliation she could. Although this biography does not mention it, elsewhere I have read she would whip her flesh with cords in order to try to pummel her flesh into submission.
Why would she act this way? This Italian woman took seriously the need for holiness and she had a deep sorrow for the sinful lifestyle she partook in for so many years. “Do not ask me to come to terms with this body of mine because I cannot afford it. Between me and my body there will be a struggle until death,” she says.
She had a devotion to praying for the Poor Souls in Purgatory. When she was lying on her death bed she had a vision. A crowd of people were coming to claim her soul. They were all the souls her prayers and penances had ransomed out of Purgatory.
St. Margaret serves as a patroness for many others, including those struggling with purity, those wishing to practice chastity, repentant prostitutes, penitent women, and many others.
St. Margaret of Cortona, pray for us!
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