Twins Catherine and Giovanna were the 23rd and 24th children of Giacomo de Benincasa, a cloth dyer, and his wife, Lapa. Giovanna soon died. At seven, Catherine made a vow to remain a virgin for life. As a teenager, she advised, “Build a cell inside your mind, from which you can never flee.”
When Catherine was 16, one of her older married sisters died. Her father betrothed Catherine to the sister’s widower, a common practice. Catherine did not agree to this, refusing to eat until her father gave in. She became a Dominican tertiary nun, to their displeasure; as a tertiary, she did not have to live in the convent.
Catherine ate little, gave to the poor and ministered to the sick. When plague broke out, she sucked the pus from festering wounds with her mouth, but did not get become ill. Catherine was 29 when the Western Schism of the Catholic Church began in 1378. She supported the duly elected but mentally ill Pope Urban VI against the duly elected Clement VII (now called an antipope). This earned her great admiration and great hatred. When Pope Urban sent her to Florence to make peace, they chased her out of town.
In 1380, Catherine died in Rome one month after her 33rd birthday, perhaps from a stroke. Pope Urban wanted her buried in Rome. The people from her hometown wanted to take her body to Siena. Urban posted guards; the Sienans managed to sneak in and cut off her head and hide it in a bag. Now, they had to get past the guards at the gates to get out of Rome.
They prayed the guards would not notice the bag, but they did. The Sienans were terrified when the guards opened the bag. But inside, there were only rose petals. When they arrived in Siena, there in the bag was the severed head of Catherine. It was bronzed and placed in the Basilica of San Domenico in Siena, where it may still be seen today.
Catherine, canonized by Pope Pius II in 1461, is the patron saint of people who are ridiculed for their beliefs.