St Damien of Molokai
Feast Day: 10th May
Father Damien (1840-1889) was born Jozef De Veuster in Belgium. He became a priest with the Fathers of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary and was sent on mission to Hawaii, which was struggling under a public health crisis. Among the diseases rife in Hawaii at the time was leprosy, and those with the disease had to be quarantined on the island of Molokai. However, it was important that those quarantined were ministered to, so the Bishop of the diocese addressed the pastoral need by requesting volunteers from among his priests. Four men volunteered, including Father Damien.
As part of his ministry, Father Damien dedicated himself to taking care of all of his patients’ needs: he taught the faith, he appointed leaders, and assisted them medically and emotionally. No task was beneath him, even digging coffins, and he didn’t let fear of the disease prevent him from giving his patients the care they needed, such as dressing ulcers. He saw himself as their father and ensured that they knew that though they had been rejected by society, they were loved by God.
In 1884, eleven years after arriving on the island, Father Damien contracted leprosy himself. This did not stop him from supporting his patients, however; instead, he determinedly continued his work, until he became bedridden in 1889. Less than a month after being confined to his bed, Damien died aged just 49.
Pope Benedict canonised Father Damien in 2009.
“Following in St Paul’s footsteps, St Damien prompts us to choose the good warfare (cf. 1 Tim 1: 18), not the kind that brings division but the kind that gathers people together. He invites us to open our eyes to the forms of leprosy that disfigure the humanity of our brethren and still today call for the charity of our presence as servants, beyond that of our generosity.”
(Pope Benedict XVI)
St Hildegard of Bingen
Feast Day: 17th September
In 2012, Pope Benedict XVI made a German Benedictine abbess, Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), the fourth female Doctor of the Church in recognition of “her holiness of life and the originality of her teaching”. This remarkable saint was given to a Benedictine monastery as an oblate at a young age and at the age of 42, she became the abbess.
From the age of three, Hildegard began having visions, which she called “The Shade of the Living Light” because she saw everything in the light of God through the five senses. She was later commanded by God to write down her visions and Pope Eugenius III, hearing of her writings, granted her Papal approval to record the visions as being revelations from the Holy Spirit. Her fame grew and people travelled from across Europe to visit her, while she travelled around Germany to preach.
In addition to her visions, Hildegard excelled in many areas: she was a writer, a composer, a philosopher, a mathematician, and a theologian, and she was skilled in pharmacy, medicine, poetry, writing, and preaching. Her skills were highly unusual for a woman of the time and she firmly believed in the equality of men and women, since men and women are both created in the image and likeness of God. She noted: “woman may be made from man, but no man can be made without a woman.” It was thanks to Hildegard’s theology that God became seen as encompassing both male and female qualities.
However, Hildegard also sparked controversy on many occasions. On one such occasion, she ignored diocesan instructions by burying the body of a young man in her monastery’s convent – in consecrated ground – even though he had previously been excommunicated. Yet Hildegard knew that by receiving the last sacraments before dying, he had been reconciled to the Church. Unfortunately, the Bishop didn’t agree and her monastery was forbidden from celebrating Mass or receiving the Eucharist.
Hildegard’s canonisation process was complicated and lasted several centuries, though she was venerated as a saint even before her official canonisation. In 2012 Pope Benedict XVI, completed the process of her canonisation through “equivalent canonisation”, which happens when the veneration of the saint is already well established, despite the formal canonisation process not having been completed, and so the saint’s feast is added to the Universal Calendar.
“The human being exists in both the male and female form. Hildegard recognised that a relationship of reciprocity and a substantial equality between man and woman is rooted in this ontological structure of the human condition… In Hildegard are expressed the most noble values of womanhood: hence the presence of women in the Church and in society is also illumined by her presence, both from the perspective of scientific research and that of pastoral activity. Her ability to speak to those who were far from the faith and from the Church make Hildegard a credible witness of the new evangelisation.”
(Pope Benedict XVI)
St Mary MacKillop
Feast Day: 8th August
The first Australian to be declared a saint, Mary MacKillop (1842-1909) took work as a governess to help support her struggling family, when she met a priest who would be instrumental in her future works. Several years after their meeting, Mary and Fr Julian Tenison-Woods opened a Catholic school where they taught over 50 children. Mary, along with her two sisters who taught with her, was soon joined by other women and together they began using the name Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart, or Josephites. After this initial school was established, many more were set up around Australia, while institutions for orphans, endangered girls, the elderly, and the dying were also set up.
The work of the sisters became complicated when the Bishop of Adelaide, acting on bad advice, excommunicated Mary, wrongfully accusing her of insubordination. Mary suffered this trial for a year before the Bishop lifted the excommunication on his deathbed. Unfortunately, other troubles followed: the Bishop of Brisbane disagreed with Mary on who should control the sisters’ schools – the Josephites or the diocese – and the sisters were asked to leave the diocese, despite protests by the laity. Yet even in the face of such challenges and setbacks, the order flourished, was given Papal approval, and was able to expand outside of Australia.
Mary’s health deteriorated in later years and she became paralysed on one side after a stroke, requiring the use of a wheelchair for seven years until her death on 8th August 1909 at the age of 67. Pope Benedict XVI canonised her in 2010.
“For many years countless young people throughout Australia have been blessed with teachers who were inspired by the courageous and saintly example of zeal, perseverance and prayer of Mother Mary MacKillop. She dedicated herself as a young woman to the education of the poor in the difficult and demanding terrain of rural Australia, inspiring other women to join her in the first women’s community of religious sisters of that country. She attended to the needs of each young person entrusted to her, without regard for station or wealth, providing both intellectual and spiritual formation. Despite many challenges, her prayers to Saint Joseph and her unflagging devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, to whom she dedicated her new congregation, gave this holy woman the graces needed to remain faithful to God and to the Church. Through her intercession, may her followers today continue to serve God and the Church with faith and humility!”
(Pope Benedict XVI)
St Kateri Tekakwitha
Feast Day: 14th July
Born in a Mohawk village in New York state, Tekakwitha (1656-1680) was the daughter of a Mohawk chief, but tragedy struck when, aged just four years old, she lost both her parents and her brother to smallpox. Tekawitha herself survived the incident with impaired vision and scarred skin, which she would later try to cover by wearing a blanket over her head.
When Tekakwitha was eleven, she encountered three Jesuit missionaries. Her uncle, who had become the village chief and raised Tekakwitha since her parents’ death, despised the Jesuits, but a peace treaty prevented him from sending them away. Tekakwitha was so inspired by the words of the Jesuits that when her adopted family tried to get her to marry a Mohawk man, she refused, desiring instead to remain single for God. Her family subsequently treated her like a slave, but she refused to give in.
Finally, aged 18, Tekawitha was given an opportunity to speak to one of the Jesuits. Having injured herself, she was unable to join the other women when they went to harvest corn. She told him of her desire to become a Christian and so the priest instructed her in the faith. She was baptised on Easter Sunday at the age of 19, naming herself after St Catherine of Siena with the name “Kateri”. Yet her newfound faith put her life at risk, and soon Kateri had to leave her village to live in a Christian community in Montreal, Canada. Here Kateri became known for her life of prayer, love, and penance; she also took a vow of virginity and practised severe fasting for the conversion of her fellow Mohawks.
Five years after her conversion, during Holy Week, Kateri sadly died at the age of 24. In the minutes before her death, witnesses noted that her face became beautiful, her scars disappeared, and a smile lit up her face. Her last words were, “Jesus, Mary, I love you!” Pope Benedict canonised her in 2012.
“Kateri impresses us by the action of grace in her life in spite of the absence of external help and by the courage of her vocation, so unusual in her culture. In her, faith and culture enrich each other! May her example help us to live where we are, loving Jesus without denying who we are.”
(Pope Benedict XVI)
St André Bessette
Feast Day: 6th January
Although tragedy filled Alfred Bessette’s (1845-1937) young life, having lost both parents by the age of twelve, it was this sad turn of events that began his journey of faith. During catechetical lessons with the family that raised him, Alfred came across two devotions that would stay with him for the rest of his life: the Passion, and St Joseph.
Years later, it was his earnest devotion that caught the attention of his parish priest, who helped him to join the Congregation of the Holy Cross in Montreal, Canada, where Alfred took the name Brother André. As an uneducated orphan with poor health, André was given the job of porter, with additional odd jobs on the side. Yet though André was underestimated by his community, he had a deep faith and maintained his love for St Joseph. It was this devotion that he passed on to all those who asked for help, desiring to further devotion to the dear foster father of Our Lord. When he wasn’t busy, he would sometimes walk over to Mount Royal across the road and leave holy medals all over the hillside. His intention, he told people, was to get the help of St Joseph in building a chapel there.
André soon became well-known for his talent for healing, with his prayers aided by St Joseph medals and olive oil from the lamp burning near the saint’s statue. André never took credit for the cures, however, and would simply say, “Saint Joseph cures.” This did not please his superiors, who were unhappy with the amount of attention he was receiving and the crowds of people coming to him for healing. They soon had no choice but to give him an office in which to see his patients.
Soon, Brother André got his wish for a chapel to St Joseph on the hillside and with the permission of his superiors, he began building a basilica. His faith and determination could not be shaken even when the money ran out, leaving the Basilica without a roof: if a statue of St Joseph was put in the middle of the chapel, he told his co-workers, St Joseph would see to a roof over his head. The Oratory was finally completed thirty years after Brother André’s death, becoming Montreal’s most well-known landmark and the largest shrine to St Joseph in the world. Pope Benedict XVI canonised Brother André in 2010.
“With very little education, [Bro. André Bessette] had nevertheless understood where the essential of his faith was situated. For him, believing meant submitting freely and through love to the divine will. Wholly inhabited by the mystery of Jesus, he lived the beatitude of pure of heart, that of personal rectitude. It is thanks to this simplicity that he enabled many people to see God. He had built the Oratory of St Joseph of Mount Royal, whose faithful custodian he remained until his death in 1937. He was the witness of innumerable cures and conversions. “Do not seek to have your trials removed”, he said, “ask rather for the grace to bear them well”. For him, everything spoke of God and of God’s presence. May we, in his footsteps, seek God with simplicity in order to discover him ever present in the heart of our life! May the example of Bro. André inspire Canadian Christian life!”
(Pope Benedict XVI)
St Marianne Cope
Feast Day: 23rd January
Now known as Mother Marianne of Molokai, Barbara Cope (1838-1918) long desired to enter religious life but had to work to support her siblings and her father. However, once her father died and her siblings were old enough to support themselves, Barbara was able to follow God’s call by entering the Franciscans in Syracuse, New York, aged 24. Once she had joined the Franciscans, Marianne quickly gained a reputation for kindness and wisdom. She taught German-speaking immigrants like her, who were increasing in number in the United States at the time, and later helped found the first two Catholic hospitals in the area, where she caused controversy for accepting patients other hospitals wouldn’t, such as alcoholics.
However, Mother Marianne’s life and mission changed completely in 1883. Leprosy was ravaging the Kingdom of Hawaii, and she received a letter from a priest desperately seeking help. Though other religious congregations refused on the basis of the contagious nature of the disease, Mother Marianne, by now the Superior General of her Congregation, was unafraid and saw the work as a great privilege. Taking with her six other sisters, Mother Marianne travelled to O’ahu, Hawaii to work at an initial processing hospital for leprosy patients, from which the most severe cases were sent to Molokai for confinement. At O’ahu, Mother Marianne offered the lepers not just medical care, but a motherly love they so ardently needed. This motherly care was also extended to the children of leprosy patients who, though healthy, had been refused care elsewhere because of their close relation to people with leprosy.
It was in 1884 that Mother Marriane met the Apostle to the Lepers. Father Damien had been caring for the lepers for eleven years and appeared to be in good health, but later that year he realised that he had contracted leprosy. Though Father Damien’s diagnosis later made him an outcast with both the Church and the Government, Mother Marianne continued to show him the same hospitality she had always shown him.
The forced exile of leprosy patients to Molokai ended in 1887, but a year later Mother Marianne was asked if she would set up a home for women and girls at Kalaupapa on Molokai, where the leper colony was based. She knew that accepting this call might mean never returning to New York, but nevertheless, she enthusiastically accepted. By now, Father Damien was dying and so Mother Marianne set about taking up his work herself, while simultaneously caring for him until his death in 1889.
The work on Molokai that was now taken up by the sisters was extremely trying and overwhelming, and the sisters’ greatly feared catching leprosy themselves. However, Mother Mariane had such optimism and trust in God that she inspired hope, telling her Sisters that their duty was “to make life as pleasant and as comfortable as possible for those of our fellow creatures whom God has chosen to afflict with this terrible disease…”
Mother Marianne died in Hawaii of natural causes in 1918. Pope Benedict canonised her in October 2012, making her both among the first he beatified and among the last he canonised.
“At a time when little could be done for those suffering from this terrible disease, Marianne Cope showed the highest love, courage and enthusiasm. She is a shining and energetic example of the best of the tradition of Catholic nursing sisters and of the spirit of her beloved Saint Francis.”
(Pope Benedict XVI)
St Alphonsa of the Immaculate Conception
Feast Day: 28th July
Born Anna Muttathupadathu in Kerala, India, St Alphonsa of the Immaculate Conception (1910-1946) became the first woman of Indian origin to be declared a saint (and the first saint of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church) when Pope Benedict XVI canonised her in 2008. Annakutty (“little Anna”), as she was known, was born early: while her mother was eight months pregnant, a snake wrapped itself around her waist while she slept and the fright caused her to give birth early. Annakutty was baptised into the Syro-Malabar rite, but it wasn’t long before her life was permanently marked by suffering: at just three months old, she tragically lost her mother.
Raised by her grandparents, Anna had the joy of living in a devoutly Christian household, where she learnt to love prayer, charity, and the poor. From the age of five, she was leading her family in evening prayer, and from the age of seven, she dedicated herself completely to God. When the time came for her to receive her First Holy Communion aged eleven, she knew the honour of being able to receive the Eucharist, telling her friends, “I have Jesus in my heart!”
Unfortunately, the kindness she had been shown by her grandparents was not to be a permanent part of her life. At ten years old, it was time for her to live with the aunt her mother had entrusted her to before her death. This aunt was a severe and violent woman who desired that Anna should make an advantageous marriage. However, Anna had been receiving visions of St Thérèse of Lisieux, who told her that she would one day become a saint. Anna, therefore, developed a close friendship with the local Carmelite community, spending hours praying at the foot of the altar. Seeing the need to deter potential suitors, Anna took extreme action, reasoning that “If my body were a little disfigured no one would want me!”. So Anna placed her foot on a pile of burning embers, leaving herself with severe burns.
Eventually, Anna was able to enter religious life, joining the Franciscan Clarists in 1927 where she took the name Alphonsa of the Immaculate Conception for St Alphonsus Liguori and began work as a teacher. Yet her time as a teacher didn’t last: from 1930 she entered a period of intense suffering, which she willingly accepted as she knew that Jesus wished to purify her so that she could belong to Him. Her suffering became even greater when, in 1945, she was diagnosed with cancer, a tumour having spread throughout her body. Yet even this Alphonsa took with great joy: “I feel that the Lord has destined me to be an oblation, a sacrifice of suffering… I consider a day in which I have not suffered as a day lost to me”. She suffered with great joy until the end, finally going to meet the Lord she had loved and lived for her whole life in 1946. Pope Benedict XVI canonised her in 2008.
“This exceptional woman, who today is offered to the people of India as their first canonized saint, was convinced that her cross was the very means of reaching the heavenly banquet prepared for her by the Father. By accepting the invitation to the wedding feast, and by adorning herself with the garment of God’s grace through prayer and penance, she conformed her life to Christ’s and now delights in the “rich fare and choice wines” of the heavenly kingdom (cf. Is 25: 6). She wrote, “I consider a day without suffering as a day lost”. May we imitate her in shouldering our own crosses so as to join her one day in paradise.”
(Pope Benedict XVI)
St Jeanne Jugan (St Mary of the Cross)
Known now for founding the Little Sisters of the Poor, Jeanne Jugan (1792-1879) grew up during a time of great religious persecution. Living during the French Revolution, her mother had to educate Jeanne and her siblings in the faith secretly. Unable to go to school, at 16 she began working as a kitchen maid for a wealthy Catholic woman, who took Jeanne with her on visits to the needy. Twice Jeanne turned down marriage proposals from the same man, insisting God had other work in mind for her. Rather than marry, she divided her clothes into two piles, leaving behind her prettiest clothes for her sisters, and began working as a nurse and joined the Third Order of St John Eudes.
It was in the winter of 1839 that Jeanne met someone whose very circumstances would encourage Jeanne to do something great for God. One evening, she encountered an elderly woman who was poor and blind, with no one to care for her. Without any concern for herself, Jeanne gave up her bed for the lady. She later took in more women in need and by 1841, she had rented a room large enough for her to care for 12 elderly people, and a year later she had found room for forty.
When Jeanne was joined by other women who wanted to help her mission, she took to begging in the streets to establish more homes for those in need. A religious congregation was soon established, The Little Sisters of the Poor, and by 1850, she had been joined by over 100 women.
Challenges arose for Jeanne when the Superior General of the congregation, Abbé Le Pailleur, prevented her from being reelected as superior, refused to recognise her as the founder, only permitted her to beg on the streets, and eventually forced her into retirement at the Motherhouse. There she remained in obscurity for 27 years, with the younger sisters of the ever-expanding congregation having no knowledge that she was indeed the founder. She died in obscurity in 1879, but God had ensured the spread of her work nonetheless, with 2400 Little Sisters working across Europe and North America by the time Pope Leo XIII approved the Congregation’s Constitutions. It wasn’t until 1890 that Abbé Le Pailleur was dismissed and Jeanne’s true role as the founder was properly acknowledged.
“In the Beatitudes Jeanne Jugan found the source of the spirit of hospitality and fraternal love, founded on unlimited trust in Providence, which illuminated her whole life. This evangelical dynamism is continued today across the world in the Congregation of Little Sisters of the Poor, which she founded and which testifies, after her example, to the mercy of God and the compassionate love of the Heart of Jesus for the lowliest. May St Jeanne Jugan be for elderly people a living source of hope and for those who generously commit themselves to serving them, a powerful incentive to pursue and develop her work!”
(Pope Benedict XVI)