John Henry Newman’s extraordinary influence on the Church – and well beyond it – ensured that his canonisation on October 13 received international attention. And yet, on that same day, without comparable fanfare, Pope Francis canonised four additional saints – each a woman, hailing from different parts of the globe, and each extraordinary in their own way: Mother Mariam Thresia (1876-1926) of India; Mother Giuseppina Vannini (1859-1911) of Italy; Sister Dulce Lopes Pontes (1914-1992) of Brazil; and Marguerite Bays (1815-1879) of Switzerland.
Of the new female saints, Mariam Thresia’s life may be the most dramatic.
Born into privilege, she soon experienced adversity as her family lost its fortune, her mother died, and her father and brothers became alcoholics. But none of these trials shook Mariam Thresia’s passionate faith.
By the time she was 10, she had already consecrated her life to Christ. She prayed and fasted for the conversion of sinners, assisted the poor, visited the lonely and – at considerable risk to herself – aided people with contagious and deadly diseases.
She received the mystical gifts of healing and prophecy, and developed the stigmata.
At first, her bishop feared she was possessed, but the priest charged with exorcising her discovered she was actually holy. In 1914, with the blessing of the Church, she founded the Congregation of the Holy Family, whose members devoted themselves to austere lives of prayer and penance, and the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. The Congregation remains active and beloved throughout India today, serving the poor, the lost and the oppressed.
Giuseppina Vannini’s road to sainthood was equally challenging. Orphaned when she was seven, she was rescued by the Vincentian Sisters, who raised and nursed her throughout many trying illnesses. After a period of reflection, Giuseppina decided to return this abundant love by entering religious life. But no community would accept her because of her frail health.
Frustrated though not discouraged, she overcame this obstacle by co-founding her own order, the Daughters of St Camillus, with Fr Luigi Tezza, an exceptional priest whom she met at a spiritual retreat. The Daughters not only became known for their exemplary hospitals (for the aged, disabled and terminally ill) but also for their evangelical work in the Missions. When Fr Tezza became the victim of malign attacks, he left for Peru to minister to the downtrodden there, rather than battle his Italian critics. But he was later vindicated when he was declared Blessed. His departure from Italy left Mother Giuseppina entirely responsible for her order’s humanitarian and missionary work. She was more than up to the task, for by the time she died, she left behind a thriving religious community which operates in nearly 20 countries today.
Dulce Lopes Pontes has been called “the Mother Teresa of Brazil”, and for good reason. When she was 13, her relatives showed her the country’s poorest region, and she was so affected by what she saw that she devoted the rest of her life to the poor. After becoming a Franciscan Sister, she began performing “small acts of love” as St Thérèse of Lisieux had, watching Christ transform them into even greater works.
The best example is when Sister Dulce turned a convent’s chicken yard into a hostel for 70 people who needed medical assistance. This small, makeshift hostel became the basis for Sister Dulce’s Charitable Works Foundation, which expanded into one of Brazil’s largest healthcare, educational and research organisations. Today it serves an astonishing 3.5 million people every year – without charging them a penny. For her efforts on behalf of the poor and afflicted, Sister Dulce was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and met Mother Teresa and St John Paul II, two of her biggest admirers. Now the entire Catholic world is much more aware of Sister Dulce’s heroic sanctity.
Marguerite Bays is the one lay woman of this “holy quartet”. Growing up on a Swiss farm, she became a seamstress and appeared destined for a quiet, conventional life. But heaven had other ideas. Marguerite was a daily communicant, prayed the rosary often, attended Eucharistic Adoration and invited everyone she met to pray with her. She spent her free time working in her parish and rushed to help anyone in need. At 38, she contracted cancer, but was miraculously healed – after asking the Blessed Virgin to intercede – on the very day Blessed Pope Pius IX proclaimed the dogma of the Immaculate Conception.
Though a member of the Secular Franciscans, she never became a formal religious because her family so depended on her.
A sister suffered a broken marriage, a brother went to jail, and she raised an out-of-wedlock nephew by herself. When Marguerite’s oldest brother married a housemaid, Josette, Marguerite endured harassment from her on an almost daily basis, but she bore this abuse in silence.
As Josette lay dying, she realised her transgressions, and asked for Marguerite to be at her bedside. Marguerite also received the stigmata, and experienced the wounds of Christ most intensely during Holy Week. Her humility and profound spirituality remain a model for lay Catholics, and a reminder that they too can become saints.