PROBABLY THE most unlikely — and yet most significant — patroness for this day and age would be Blessed Margaret of Castello. If her parents had lived today and the doctors had been able to anticipate with accuracy the little unborn infant’s handicaps (as is claimed will be routine in just a few years) there is no doubt that an abortion would have been recommended.
A recent parish bulletin published a description of the Red Rose symbol adopted by some of the pro-life groups. It was written by a high school senior: “The rose’s beauty and perfection is evident while still just a tiny bud, which gradually matures to be the most beautiful of all flowers. Every human being was once a tiny bud within its mother’s womb, unseen but nevertheless the wondrous work of God. Every child, like the rose, is an autograph from the Hand of God.”
Margaret is more than a symbol, much more. She is a candidate for God’s roster of saints — a ‘balance and sanity’ for today’s topsy-turvy world where beauty is merely a cosmetic quality and a separate entity from goodness and truth. She could be for millions a consolation, an inspiration, and an advocate.
When any evil or sin is mentioned today, it is usually explained that it is inevitable, given the inner-city syndrome as the basic cause of all ills. But, traditionally, we know that sins, either against the natural or supernatural law, are by no means limited to the poor and the cities, despite the insistence of the modern social activists.
Margaret’s case is to the point. She was born in a castle in Italy in 1270 to “wealthy parents of noble ancestry,”1 and yet one would have to look far to find a pair more cruel and evil than her father and mother. Her birth took place in The Thirteenth, the Greatest of Centuries,2 which produced glorious literature and poetry, beautiful music, art and architecture. But little Margareta was ugly, hunchbacked, lame, blind, and a dwarf — and so handicapped — why should she live?
Father Bonnewell tells us that as soon as Margaret could speak, the priest chaplain at the castle taught her her prayers. By the time she was five years old she showed such intelligence that he talked to her daily about God, about His love, and His reason for creating us. In her earliest years she seemed completely unaware of being at all different from other children her age. She was told by the kindly priest that God has special reasons for creating each one of us. Margareta means “pearl” and when Our Lord seemed to be whispering, “Be my Margareta, just for Me”; she took Him quite literally. And perhaps that is one of the subtle differences between this Little Pearl and the rest of us — for isn’t He saying, “Be yourself just for Me” to all of us? Her physical differences were far more obvious. But what is beauty and where can we find it?
You may ask, “Where were her parents and what were they doing for her?” Well, that’s the sad part of the story. Her parents’ names were Emilia and Parisio. (As if in shame no record reveals their surnames.) Parisio was the Governor of the military garrison at Metola, a city high up on the side of a mountain about twenty miles from Florence. Her ‘noble’ parents were ashamed of her; their pride was hurt. How could God do this to them — the most important and affluent family for miles around? They couldn’t face ‘what people would say’ or ‘what people would think,’ so they determined to keep Margaret out of sight. She was placed in the charge of an old peasant woman and a small cell was built for the six-year-old next to their chapel in the forest. If she were housed in or near the castle she would have been seen by visitors. Parisio wouldn’t permit that. He didn’t want to see her himself. After she was cast into the cell, her father ordered a mason to seal the doorway. It was her father’s intention that she be kept there till she died.
Apparently no one had the courage to voice protests at the fort, but in their homes the soldiers and their wives were furious at this treatment. Nevertheless, one man dared to speak up in her behalf to the Governor himself — the otherwise mild, hitherto timorous little priest. But his courage only enraged the evil Parisio and his weak-kneed wife.
Imagine a little six-year-old child so deprived of her parents’ love and attention that their only interest, where their child was concerned, was to keep her concealed in the little cell next to the forest chapel.
As we said earlier, Margaret had no idea that she was different from other children, no idea of her handicaps. But her parents could not keep their shame and the blow to their ego hidden from the dear little girl, who was so cheerful and devout, and whose joyful disposition was a stab at their own consciences. What did they do? They told her she was a freak, that other children were not midgets or lame or hunchbacked or blind, and that she was as ugly as sin! (their sin?)
Most of those at the garrison thought it would have been better had she died at birth. But Margaret became the living refutation of that kind of neopagan philosophy. Pre-Christian paganism had, at least, some natural goodness; but post-Christian paganism has become increasingly satanic, as witnessed by the contempt for life evident all around us. We are so used to the grim statistics of abortions, for instance, that we have become immune to the moral shock where they are concerned. We are shocked when we learn of a little Margaret of Castello treated cruelly, but as a matter of fact, she lived on this earth for as many years as Our Lord, and given the chance to work out her salvation, increased in grace and wisdom until, at thirty-three years of age, she died a glorious death. She has been the inspiration of thousands and their intercessor ever since.
The aborted infant, however, has not only been deprived of life in this world, but of the Beatific Vision for all eternity. This writer, in full acceptance of the infallible teachings of the Church, is not implying that the souls of these unbaptized infants will suffer the fires of Hell, but recognizes also the infallible teaching that without the saving waters of Baptism they can enjoy only a natural state of happiness for all eternity.3
What a deprivation! And since a single soul is so precious in the eyes of God, imagine the decadence of our society manifested by the literally millions murdered with the ‘advice and consent’ of recognized organizations, government agencies, and the law of the land! The cruelty and evil of Margaret’s parents was limited at any rate to this side of eternity.
A Mother and Father know, [or should] with an overwhelming sense of humble gratitude, that the soul which gives life to their infant, spiritual and immortal, reaching out to the ends of the universe and beyond to garner truth, soaring to the heights of God Himself to fill the cup of love-this soul was none of their making. They know and stand in silenced awe that they were not even the instruments of the production of this soul, not playing even so humble a part as that of a hammer or saw in the making of a bench. For a spirit such as this soul is not made OUT of anything, it has no parts, it is not produced in slow stages; not even God Himself could give an instrument a part to play in the wondrous work of creating a soul. . . . [Catholic] parents know that their child is much more God’s than their own and in that knowledge come close to the joy in the hearts of Mary and Joseph on the first Christmas night.4
When God’s special saints die, the theme of their lives seems to manifest itself sometimes more clearly than when they are among us. Blessed Margaret is no exception. Like all the saints, her primary virtue was her faith and Margaret’s was so great that it filled her with a joy that affected many of those around her. She trusted God’s wisdom as well as His love and she was convinced that He had some special reasons for her afflictions. By accepting them willingly she showed Him how conformed she was to His will in serving Him here on earth to the ultimate limits just as she was. She was not going to become embittered or fret that she was lame or humpbacked, ‘ugly’ and blind, for these were, for her, her spiritual tools.
After studying the life of this dear little girl, in addition to her faith, another characteristic stands out: her purity. Purity does not mean merely an absence of impurity in thoughts and words and actions. It means more than that, much more. It means singleness of purpose, keeping our eyes fixed on our spiritual goal; not being carried away by worldliness, or superficial whims, on our journey to the forever of our hopes, our dreams, our eternal happiness.
And if we seek a third outstanding quality that shone through Margaret’s unlikely exterior, it was her nobility — not achieved through birth alone from noble ancestry, but through Baptism and prayer and contemplation of the King of kings and His most Queenly Mother and King David’s descendant, Saint Joseph, to whom the Blessed Margaret was especially devoted. This praise of her virtues may seem a pious exaggeration, but the startling disclosures upon examination of her body, years after her death, prove the truth of every affirmation. The facts are infinitely more amazing and magnified than the written description. But more of those details later.
Getting back to Margaret’s life at Metola: Her modern biographer notes that her mind was luminous, which explains why she understood so well that possessing God is worth any price that we can pay. Our saint received abundant graces to patiently carry her cross, but beyond that she developed an intensely intimate prayer life during the nine years that she was locked away. Although the visits of her mother were all too infrequent, Margareta loved her still and her father also. She had learned from her confessor that all love must be sanctified; so despite everything, she loved her parents in God as His representatives.
She remained there in the forest chapel cell for nine years; but when she was fifteen years old, the garrison was threatened with an invasion by Montefeltro, a rival general and a strong opponent of her father, Parisio. Fearing that she would be discovered, her father ordered her mother to place a dark veil over Margaret’s head and face, and flee with her to his city castle at Mercatello. There her lot became much worse. She was incarcerated in a vault-like cubicle, where the sole furnishings consisted of “a miserable pallet and an old bench” and nothing else.
As if she were a common criminal, she was informed of the new regulations there: She would be given food twice a day, and she was not to call out under any circumstances. When the rules had been stated, the bolts were drawn and Margaret was again alone. But her sufferings were worse than before. During her long imprisonment she was deprived of Mass and the sacraments of penance and the Holy Eucharist, as well as the visits and encouragement of the chaplain in whom she had confided at Metola. These were her great spiritual agonies. Her faith and her courage persisted, but only the grace of God could sustain her through the tragedies to come.
Two years after Montefeltro’s attack on the garrison, news of many miracles taking place spread throughout the town of Mercatello. It seems that the cause of these miracles was the powerful intercession of a recently deceased member of the Franciscan Third Order, Fra Giacomo, whose tomb was in the city of Castello. Her mother, Emilia, in the telling of the ordinary events and gossip of the day, mentioned these wonders to Parisio. She even timidly suggested taking Margaret to the Tertiary’s tomb. Much to her surprise, he showed interest, and abruptly replied: “We have nothing to lose. Be ready to leave with Margaret heavily veiled the day after tomorrow.” Then in the same brusque tone of voice he added, “Emilia, this pilgrimage is going to solve our problem.” Emilia didn’t understand his meaning entirely but she knew Parisio, and for some reason she shuddered as if with a presentiment of evil.
The very next day preparations for the journey were begun and completed. Parisio even had a mounted escort of twelve soldiers for his carriage as protection against bandits and other dangers en route. Their journey across the Apennine Mountains had begun by six in the morning, and after many hours of arduous traveling, the entourage entered the city, which was surrounded by a high stone wall. Parisio engaged accommodations at the best inn, just inside the outer gate, and while the womenfolk rested, he strolled about the city making inquiries concerning the stories he had heard. And, sure enough, he met and talked to three persons who had been miraculously cured by the Franciscan Tertiary when prayers were directed to him after his recent death. (It irked Parisio that Fra Giocomo was dead; such cures would imply ‘miracles,’ but he was willing to risk such thoughts to restore Margaret to an appearance he considered appropriate for parents of their position by whatever name given to these ‘cures.’)
He returned to the inn, picked up his wife and daughter, and brought them to the shrine. He instructed Margareta to pray hard, and pretended that he and Emilia were going to confession and Holy Communion. But Mass and the sacraments are signs of the True Faith, which her father didn’t believe in, and which neither her father nor her mother practiced — although they didn’t hesitate to make their demands at the shrine.
Parisio remarked to his wife that, after looking over the ‘rabble’ present, he thought that even though it might take God some time for Margaret’s cure, he was sure it would take place, despite God’s possible difficulties. Certainly, people of their standing and rank deserved special consideration! It was only right!
Being an obedient daughter, Margaret prayed, but she added with her whole heart that she wanted only what God willed for her — whatever that might be. When after many hours her parents returned to the Church and saw there was no miracle for Margaret, they abandoned her without even telling her, and she remained praying until the sexton came to lock up the church that night. She then spent the entire night in the doorway.
The poor little teenager did not learn until the following morning from the guards at the city gate that her parents had actually left to return to Metola without her. The little blind girl now realized that they not only did not love her but that they hated the very sight of her. Even then she did not blame them. But to know that they would never again be near her was an agonizing loneliness. Now she was alone and without any means of support in an unknown foreign city. Add to this her blindness, the refinement of her nature, and her former isolation in a castle, and the prospect was more than bleak. It was her greatest trial so far.
Beggars in those days, frequenting the churches and other public places, were so much a part of the town that each group had its own territory and any stranger was resented as an intruder. The beggars were out early that morning and the first few of them were startled to find someone ahead of them huddled in the church doorway. At first they were furious, but when she told her sad tale of her parents’ disappearance, and they found out that the little cripple was not a beggar, they saw that she offered no competition, and were completely disarmed.
First they decided they ought to try to find her parents at one of the nearby inns. One of the innkeepers told them that the group of people they were seeking had left the day before, and suggested they check with the guards at the city gate. Here the innkeeper’s traumatic news of her parents’ departure was confirmed; Margaret seemed to go into shock. However, she turned to God in her prayers and asked for His direction after accepting this latest and greatest cross.
Her new companions, the poverty-stricken and beggars of the city, took her as their own. When the first wild snowstorm of the winter not only blanketed the nearby mountains but forced its way even into the doorways where Margaret sought shelter, a young girl who had befriended her that first morning obtained permission from one of the town’s carpenters for the two of them to sleep in his stable. The idea filled Margaret with wonder and she explained to her companion her joy at the goodness of God, Who provided a shelter for them so comparable to Our Lord’s! Her companion was almost struck dumb by Margaret’s reaction!
When Margaret had lived as a beggar for about a year or more, everyone she met marvelled at her joy despite all her hardships, and at her tremendous sympathy for those whom she considered far less fortunate than herself. Her faith and confidence in the goodness and love of God radiated from her very person, and all who had even a few words with her had to admit that this was indeed no ‘pious fraud’ who was in their midst. She was deeply spiritual — not because she talked about it — but because the Way, the Truth and the Life of Our Lord Himself dwelt within her soul. She lived this life as a loving, joyful member of His Mystical Body. Her sufferings did not dampen her spirits; they were her soul’s medication and assured her of her share and part in that Mystical Body, and united her in a special way with all who suffered.
The town marvelled, too, at the tremendous amount of good she was constantly doing for them. She was, however, no humanitarian. She proved her love for other creatures by loving first and foremost the Creator and Source of all Love. She wasn’t a ‘do-gooder’ as we say in these times, for no community action was apart from her charity (which term Saint Thomas Aquinas explains as “the love of God”), nor did she enter upon any project because it made her ‘feel good.’ Her love for all rested on a far firmer foundation.
Everyone admired her holiness, and news of it reached into the convent of cloistered nuns in Castello, who invited her to join the community. The Dominican author and scholar, Father Bonnewell, who found the original medieval manuscript of an account of her life, points out that research has proved conclusively that the order was not Dominican. The convent had been founded long before the Dominicans went to Castello. Strangely enough, the Dominican Sisters did take over the convent, but that was many years after Margaret’s death.
Because so little was known about Margaret’s background (she mentioned nothing of her past history to anyone), the decision to accept her was left up to the Bishop who, “after due deliberation,” sanctioned her reception. This seemed like a ‘lived happily ever after’ ending, but this was far from the actuality.
Margaret believed that all girls who entered a religious order wanted to become saints. She certainly did. But, in the convent she entered, a spirit of laxity had entered in. The nuns at the convent at Castello were annoyed that Margaret wanted to keep the rules as they were written by the saintly founders. It was explained to her that the ‘times were different’ from the time of the founders and things change with the times.
In regard to the silence that the Rule called for, the Novice Mistress explained that ‘charity was more important.’ Father Bonnewell points out that Margaret found it difficult to understand why it was not possible to be charitable and at the same time observe the Rule.
Margaret, too, had to make a choice — or rather, the Order made it for her. The Sisters were hostile to her and the prioress soon told Margaret: “We follow custom as a principle; you must conform to the other Sisters in your everyday life.” Margaret, of course, took the matter up with her confessor and he told her to continue as she had been doing — to obey the Rule — and that she was pleasing God by so doing. On the other hand, the proud prioress was adamant and Margaret was asked to leave. They put her out, and the people of the town were shocked — an “exnun” in their town! False rumors about her were spread both from within the convent and without, all of which fashioned for her an even more humiliating trial. After several months, the contempt and derision ceased. No word of criticism of the convent was ever voiced by Margaret, but that could not be said of the nuns in their talk about her with the lay people. Most of the latter, however, were fair enough to judge the holy outcast on what they observed themselves, and all of them seemed to agree that she had strong faith, courage, and an extraordinary peace of soul. The criticism of the nuns who maligned her seemed entirely a defense mechanism of their own lax ways.
Margaret attended daily Mass at the Church of Charity. The Dominican Fathers were in charge, and it was the headquarters of the Mantellate , the original Third Order of Saint Dominic. This was an organization for laywomen who wished to live a spiritual life, although for some reason or other did not wish to, or could not, enter a convent. At that time (in the fourteenth century) all members of this Order of Penance, as it was known later on, wore the Dominican habit. It included a white tunic, a long white veil, and a leather belt. Over the tunic the members wore a long black coat or mantella — from which they derived their name.
Several members believed Margaret would be a great addition to their Third Order, but the Rule stated that only widows of a mature age were eligible; and very rarely, an elderly married woman, provided the husband gave his consent publicly. This was the Rule. A half century later this rule prevented Saint Catherine of Sienna from becoming a Mantellate.5 Finally Margaret’s friends, pointing out her physical handicaps and afflictions, prevailed upon the Director, Fra Luigi, to accept her. To her great joy, she made her profession shortly after. It was the first time a young unmarried woman was accepted into this Order.
Margaret’s apostolate embraced the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy to the sick, the dying, and to all who were in need of such assistance.
Her heroic self-sacrifice was like a benediction to the whole city. Because she loved God so very much, so genuinely, her love — like a mother’s love — was multiplied, not divided, to include His children both young and old.
After Margaret became a Mantellate, several families offered to have her stay with them. She accepted the offer of the Offrenduccio family and stayed with them until one of the latter died and the household was broken up.
Not long after this, Margaret lived with a family named Venturino. She remained with them till her death in 1320. What a mystical circumstance it was that she was born in a castle and that now her last residence was also a castle. None of her friends knew of her noble birth because, after she had been abandoned by her parents, Margaret was deliberately vague about her origins. She was convinced that her parents would have preferred it that way.
Even though blind, she sensed the luxurious atmosphere of the Venturino’s residence and begged the head of the house, Messer Venturino, to allow her to sleep in the attic. He was at first horrified at her request and had his wife assign her to the best guest room in the palace, but he was also a man of faith and, apparently, of discernment in spiritual matters. When he learned from his wife that Margaret was tutoring his sons in logic, astronomy, Latin grammar, and music, even though she was untutored herself and completely blind, he realized that their guest was an extraordinary person and one of God’s specially chosen ones. He gave her his permission to have the little closet-like garret room, or any other place she wanted. There she could spend her time in contemplation when she was not engaged in her active apostolate in the town. Messer Venturino and his whole household believed Margaret was a blessing for themselves and their residence. And they were right. She attended daily Mass, sometimes two or three Masses a day, and was rewarded, though blind, with the actual sight of Christ Incarnate on the altar.
Margaret was very generous in her prayers for those who begged for help. Her contemplation was so exalted that she often levitated from the ground. This phenomenon greatly affected a prisoner incarcerated in a most vile prison and tortured for a crime that he had not committed. Upon witnessing her raised above the ground as she prayed in his cell, he repented for his resentment and many blasphemies against God.
One time when Messer Venturino and the children were away, a raging fire started on the ground floor of the palace. Despite the brigade of firefighters that was formed, the fire was getting completely out of control. Lady Gregoria was told that her palace was doomed. Suddenly she remembered that Margaret had not yet left for her charitable rounds, and was still in the garret. No one would let Lady Venturino enter the burning building, but she called out frantically to Margaret to hurry out. Calmly Margaret called down to Lady Gregoria telling her not to be afraid, to trust in God, and threw her Mantellate cloak into the flames. As she did so, the raging fire was instantly extinguished.
Margaret worked many other miracles. For a glowing and dramatic account of them all, this writer enthusiastically urges you to get hold of a copy of the scholarly and dramatic biography by Father Bonnewell. Before closing with what may certainly be the most dramatic miracle of all, let me urge our readers to go to Blessed Margaret if you are in need of her help, particularly if only a miracle can supply the answer.
To quote the learned Dominican Father again, “As she drew closer and closer to God, the flames of Divine Love burned more and more fiercely in her heart” and he, in turn, quotes that beautiful truth of St. Augustine: “When one loves, one does not suffer; or if one does suffer the very suffering is loved.”
Many miracles occurred during Margaret’s lifetime, but hundreds more since her death. On the day of her funeral, the parents of a little girl carried her in their arms to reach the pallet where the body of Margaret lay. The child was not only a mute, but was crippled since birth because of a severe curvature of the spine. She had never been able to walk. They placed the little one on the ground next to Margaret’s body. All joined the tearfully beseeching parents in their appeal for a cure. The crowd thought it was witnessing an optical illusion — but no, there was Margaret’s left arm rising and reaching over to touch the little cripple beside her. As it did, the little girl immediately stood up and called out in a loud voice, “I have been cured through Margaret.” Witnesses signed documents testifying to the cure of the two ailments of the child
Margaret was given the simplest herbal form of embalming that might preserve a body for a week or so, but no longer. She was buried in one of the chapels of the Dominican Church, where the people who knew and loved her might visit her tomb. This they did in droves. There are many medieval documents testifying to cures at this tomb, with each one sworn to before a notary. For example, ta here was Bernardina, who had cancer of the face which had destroyed the sight in one of her eyes. On the eighth day of her prayers the cancer completely disappeared and her sight was instantly restored.
Many children, crippled from birth, whose physicians had declared to be hopeless cases, were likewise cured. And adults too; even the dead were brought back to life, including a hunter who was mangled by bears, and a little boy, already dead from drowning. Everything belonging to Margaret, her few personal possessions, became relics for the people who loved her so much and who had so much confidence in her intercession with God.
Although there were so many miracles, Margaret’s cause for beatification (and canonization) was delayed. Wars, the plague, even political intrigues, and general neglect on the part of officials were contributing causes, but on June 9, 1558, a large committee was appointed to witness the exhumation of her remains. After two hundred and thirty-eight years her body was found incorrupt! Even her left arm, which had lifted to cure the little crippled mute, was still slightly raised without any support.
On October 19, 1609, after another thorough examination, the results of which went to the Sacred Congregation of Rites, the Church declared her “Blessed.” At least three miracles are required for all candidates for canonization. Well, there are hundreds for Margaret. What then have we been holding back in the true legend of this Little Pearl? The miracles after her death were so great and so numerous that the Dominican Fathers decided to open a sealed urn in which her heart had been preserved. But this, as well, is not a singular procedure. Several saints’ hearts have been put in such reliquaries for veneration of the faithful.
However, when the seal was broken in the presence of many well-known priests and laymen there were three little pearl-like pellets found in Margareta’s heart! Was this not unique?
You will remember that a few pages back we mentioned three outstanding virtues of this dear Little Pearl of God: Faith, Purity, and Nobility. The first was Faith, and on one of the little pellets found there was the Manger scene, originally a manifestation for the beautiful childlike Faith of the shepherds.
The second pearl pictured Our Lady who is Purity personified. And the third was a picture of Margareta and St. Joseph — the noble scion of King David.
Margaret had once proclaimed: “Oh, if you only knew what I carried in my heart, you would marvel!”
This was, indeed, a prophecy spoken by her more than six centuries ago. And this was the little baby about whom someone said, “Wouldn’t it be better if she had died at birth?”
1. Rev. William Bonnewell, O.P., author of the definitive biography.
2. A Study by James J. Walsh.
3. If anyone says that Baptism is optional, that is, not necessary for salvation, let him be anathema. (Denzinger 861) If anyone says that true and natural water is not necessary in Baptism, and therefore interprets metaphorically the words of Our Lord Jesus Christ, “Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost” [John 3:5] let him be anathema. (ibid 858)
4. My Way of Life by Rev. Walter Farrell, O.P., Master of Sacred Theology.
5. Margaret of Metola-Rev. William Bonnewell, O.P.