After posting a column about Saint Margaret Clitherow, whose feast day is tomorrow, I wondered how many saints there were with the name “Margaret”? I could name several, including Margaret of Scotland, Margaret Mary Alacoque (whose life I wrote about here), and Margaret Bourgeoys, but there were others, not quite so well-known, even virtually unknown. So, with the help of a list of female saints provided by CatholicOnline, I dedicate these abbreviated biographies in this column to the holy “pearls” that I found on that list. (I counted nine altogether, including Blessed Margaret of Costello.) For today, I will acquaint our readers with two other Margarets, neither of whom is well-known. The first one lived in the fourth century and the second in the thirteenth. They are Saints Margaret of Antioch, a martyr, and Saint Margaret of Cortona, a penitent.
Beginning with the earliest Saint Margaret, we have the martyr, Margaret of Antioch in Pisidia or, more likely Antioch in Syria. There is a martyr from Antioch in Pisidia, in Asia Minor (Turkey); she is known in the eastern Church as both Margaret and Marina. I had a Russian neighbor for many years whose name was Marina. Margaret of Antioch was the daughter of a pagan priest named Aedesius. One of her servants taught her about Christ Our Lord and, believing, she was subsequently baptized. Furious at his daughter’s rejection of the gods and a marriage proposal, Aedesius cast her out of the home. Later, the spurned suitor, a prefect, had her thrown into prison where she was tortured. She was beheaded in 404. Her feast day is July 20.
Saint Margaret is invoked against kidney ailments. And, in that capacity, she is on the illustrious roster of the fourteen Holy Helpers*. Because of a fictitious legend depicting her as being swallowed by the devil who took the form of a dragon, and being vomited forth unharmed, some skeptics have doubted her existence altogether. There should be no problem, however, separating fact from legend, otherwise how did this popular eastern saint end up in the Martyrology? More still, Saint Joan of Arc was visited by her. She was one of the saint’s “voices.”
*The Fourteen Holy Helpers:
St. George, Martyr, April 23
St. Blaise, Bishop and Martyr, February 3
St. Pantaleon, Martyr, July 27
St. Vitus, Martyr, June 15
St. Erasmus (Elmo), Bishop and Martyr, June 2
St. Christopher, Martyr, July 25
St. Giles, Abbot, September 1
St. Cyriacus (Cyriac), Martyr, August 8
St. Achatius, Martyr, May 8
St. Dionysius (Denis), Bishop and Martyr, October 9
St. Eustachius (Eustace), Martyr, September 20
St. Catherine of Alexandria, Virgin and Martyr, November 25
St. Margaret of Antioch, Virgin and Martyr, July 20
St. Barbara, Virgin and Martyr, December 4
The “Holy Helpers” are saints who first became grouped together and invoked during the Black Plague, which ravaged Europe between 1346 and 1349.
Next, we have Saint Margaret of Cortona. She was born to poor farmers in Loviana in Tuscany, Italy, in 1247. Her mother died when she was seven years old and her stepmother had no patience with her restless spirit. When she was old enough, Margaret left her home, eloping with a boy from Montepulciano. They had a son out of wedlock. What turned Margaret’s life around was the murder of her lover nine years later. She went to confession and, like the prodigal son, the daughter and her child returned to her father’s house. Unlike the Gospel story, however, this father refused to take her back. Undeterred, the penitent and her son, sought mercy from the Franciscans at Cortona who gave her a place to stay and work.
Although her sins were wiped out, Margaret was assailed by memories and temptations of the flesh and she did many imprudent things to eradicate them by way of penance. One Sunday, she walked into her home village with a cord tied around her neck. Then, she stood up in front of the congregation at Mass and proceeded to confess publicly. She was stopped by the priest, Father Giunta, who also had to restrain her from mutilating her face. Under his direction, Margaret found her vocation. She first gave her services to sick women, and later, worked among the poor with no pay, on alms alone.
Margaret was very devoted to Saint Francis, whose memory was very much alive in her lifetime. She was born twenty years after the seraphic saint died. Her son joined the Franciscan Friars Minor and Margaret, herself, was purified as a Third Order member being raised to the heights of contemplative union with her Savior. She had frequent ecstasies and received messages from Our Lord which she related to Father Giunta. Some of these messages were intended for other souls, and, having delivered them, Margaret proved instrumental in bringing many sinners back to grace.
But there was a cross that she rather have not had to carry. Despite her visible holiness, charity, and ecstasies there were idle gossipers who calumniated her and Father Giunta, accusing them of illicit relations. This, they both bore with the patience of saints.
There was work to be done. Let the tongue waggers, wag on. Margaret was commissioned to take care of the poor and sick throughout Cortona and to organize tertiaries to assist her. These were called Le Poverelle (the poor ones). She also founded a hospital and the Confraternity of Our Lady of Mercy.
Margaret the Penitent, La Poverella, received from God the date and the hour of death and birth into eternity. She was prepared as a bride to meet her bridegroom. It was February 22, 1297, having completed twenty-nine years of penitential works of charity. She was canonized in 1728. Her feast day is February 22nd.