Catherine of Siena


Catherine of Siena writing

Today is the feast of Caterina Benincasa, born in 14th century Siena into a large family of tradesmen. She is, like Joan of Arc a few decades later, one of those activist medieval women. Like Jehanne, she received a mission to enter the affairs of this world and, like Jehanne, she fulfilled this mission with the fearlessness of innocence and extraordinary success.

She  became a tertiary (lay member) of the Dominican Order, over her family’s strenuous opposition, and was active in charity works in her hometown of Siena. Her fame and the extent of her following grew, to the point where she was questioned by her superiors in the Dominican Order on suspicions of heresy.

She was cleared of those, and traveled extensively between the city-states of Northern Italy. Soon she was entrusted with diplomatic missions and did not hesitate to write to the Pope. Her aim was to advocate the reforms she saw as absolutely necessary to the Church and remonstrate against its failings.

The most glaring of those was in her opinion the continued installation of the Holy See in Avignon, in the midst of French territory, at the mercy of the armies of the King of France. She went to Avignon, where she convinced the Pope to return to Rome. When he did, she accompanied him, as depicted in the painting by Vasari, below.

She was also a tireless, forceful, passionate writer, and corresponded with kings, queens and religious figures. Towards the end of her short life, after she had settled in the papal court of Rome, she became heartily tired of its intrigues and worldliness and, to counterbalance those, invited there a group of obscure hermits and monks who were her correspondents. Catherine was a woman who spoke -and wrote- truth to power.

She, not surprisingly, exhausted herself, all the more so that she began to eat less and less. When her confessor upbraided her for it, she responded that food made her physically sick. She died in Rome at the age of 33 on the 29th of April 1380, after a painful illness of several months, in my opinion stomach cancer. But she left us hundreds of her letters, her Libro della divina dottrina and other mystical works. She is also one of the founding mothers of Italian literature.


Catherine of Siena escorting the Pope to Rome, by Vasari

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13 Comments to “Catherine of Siena”

  1. Fascinating information! I would love to know more about your research, and look forward to reading your book.

  2. Don Brophy says:

    This article captures the spirit of Catherine but is incorrect in several details. Catherine did not go to Rome with Gregory XI. The painting cited as evidence is an imaginary scene. Nor was she investigated for heresy by the Dominicans—although other persons, including some high churchmen, surely questioned her. You will get a truer picture of Catherine from my new biography Catherine of Siena: A Passionate Life published in September of 2010. It is listed on

    By the way, most likely Catherine died of kidney failure, although no one knows for sure.

  3. Catherine Delors says:

    Charleybrown, Catherine seems to be a name conducive to sainthood… :) We have, among others, Catherine of Alexandria, Catherine of Siena, another 14th century saint, Catherine of Sweden (who was also a writer) and finalement Catherine Labouré. I claim the latter as my patroness, along with Catherine of Sienna.
    Did Catherine of Siena, who died in Rome, and Catherine of Sweden, who lived there for long periods of time, ever meet each other at the papal court? I wonder. They died within a year of each other, though Caterina Benincasa was far younger.

  4. Charleybrown says:

    My daughter celebrates her feast on November 25th as well! I chose Catherine of Alexandria for her patron saint and didn’t realize that it’s the feast day of two Catherine’s!

  5. Penny says:

    Well, I can’t say anything differently than anyone else here and since
    I am not Catholic this was a revelation to me. I love the artwork.
    thank you

  6. Catherine Delors says:

    Christy and Richard – There is something about Catherine that makes her a saint to whom people relate easily, in spite, or because of the extraordinary strength of her personality. I didn’t know the story of Margaret of Castello, Richard, your parish is fortunate to have her as a patroness.

  7. Richard says:

    Saint Catherine of Sienna is the patroness of my parish in Clarkesville, Virginia.
    I will take copies of your article to the Catechism Classes on Sunday.

    I understand that St Catherine of Siena visited the relics of Blessed Margaret of Castello and the blessed lifted her foot to be kissed by St. Catherine. Both were tertiaries of St Dominic.


  8. Christy Somer says:

    Thank you Catherine~~~

    Attending Catholic grade school and high school and even one year of University~~~always led me to find the Lives of the Saints wonderful reading~~~Catherine of Sienna has always been one of my favorites~~~~~~;-)


  9. Catherine Delors says:

    Thank you, Donna!
    To A. Laughland. She was buried in Rome, but the Siennese went there to get back some part of her and returned home with her head, and also a finger, if my memory serves me well. These are the relics you saw in Siena.
    As for the contemporary Siennese opinion on the move of the Holy See back to Rome, I will not risk any theories. What we know for certain is that it was a time of upheaval for the Church, and that diverging opinions on every aspect of religion were likely to be encountered anywhere in France and Italy, not to mention the rest of Europe.
    About the fact that she dictated some of her letters, I heard that indeed it was the case in the beginning, but that she learned to write. The same is true, by the way, of Joan of Arc. They were both of fairly modest backgrounds, where female literacy was not, to say the least, considered a priority. This, in my view, does not detract from the appropriateness of Caterina being a Doctor of the Church. Her doctrine was most influential and beneficial to the Church. On a personal note, I, as an attorney, used to dictate many of my legal briefs, and nevertheless considered them to be my writings. So did judges and opposing counsel… :)

  10. A. Laughland says:

    There is a relic of her in the Duomo in Sienna, but when I visited that area I was told that the Siennese were quite disturbed by her efforts to bring the Pope back to Italy. They would have been content for him to remain in France. I was also told that although she is the first woman to have been considered a ‘Doctor of the Church’, she had to dictate her thoughts because she could not write.

  11. Thank you Catherine, for bringing this exceptional and progressive woman to our attention. Wonderful post; inspiring individual.

  12. Catherine Delors says:

    Thank you, Elena! When I was a child, my fête was celebrated on November 25, for another great Saint, Catherine Labouré, but I decided to add Catherine of Siena. Who could be a greater patroness for us writers? She teaches us to be fearless and passionate.

  13. Magnificent post! Happy feast day, Catherine! What a wonderful patroness!

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