From darkness to light
Catherine and her husband both had positive conversions
By Tony Staley
Where: Genoa, Italy
What: Mystic and nurse to the sick
Feast: Sept. 15
Patron: Childless, difficult marriages, victims of infidelity, widows, young brides
An old saying has it that "It's always darkest before the dawn." That certainly held true for Catherine of Genoa, whose life was filled with sorrow, depression and even despair before she had a conversion experience that changed her life - and the life of her husband, who was the source of much of her anguish.
Catherine was the last of five children born to James Fieschi and Francesca di Negro, an important family in Genoa (their relatives included Popes Innocent IV and Adrian V and a cardinal).
Catherine wanted to be a nun, but was refused admission into the convent at 13, because she was too young. Three years later, after her father died, her brother arranged a marriage to Julian Adorno, to make peace between their feuding families.
Catherine entered the marriage with "utmost repugnance." For his part, Julian, who had a quick, violent temper, lived like a playboy, spent money wildly and had at least one child with a mistress.
Catherine grew increasingly depressed. At first, she fasted and engaged in other penance. Then, after pleas from family and friends, she became socially active. Nothing helped.
Finally, she visited the convent where her sister lived as a nun. She underwent a conversion, stopped feeling angry and resentful and forgave all the wrongs done against her.
Catherine also did something highly unusual for the time - she began receiving Communion daily. And she began to celebrate the sacramentality of life and the presence of God in all of life.
The following fall, Julian, who by then had squandered his fortune, underwent his own conversion and joined the Third Order of St. Francis. The couple reconciled and agreed to live together as brother and sister in a small house in a working class neighborhood, rather than in their palace.
They began helping the sick in their neighborhood and the nearby Pammetone Hospital. It was the first time Julian had ever worked. As for the neat and tidy Catherine, she cleaned houses and washed filthy, vermin-covered clothes.
Six years later, the couple moved into the hospital and, in 1490, Catherine became the director. She cared for the sick through a plague in 1493 in which 80% of the Genovese died. She nearly died after contracting plague by kissing a dying woman. Three years later, health problems forced her to resign as director.
The following year, Julian died after a long illness and Catherine began caring for his daughter and mistress.
In 1499, Catherine, who had long been a mystic, met Fr. Cattaneo Marabotto, who became her first spiritual director. For the last years of her life, Catherine was unable to work because of a serious illness the doctors could not diagnose. So she spent her time meeting with men and women disciples until her death.
She is the author of two mystical classics, Dialogue Between the Soul and the Body and Treatise on Purgatory.
(Sources: All Saints, Butler's Lives of the Saints, Dictionary of Saints, Lives of the Saints, Lives of the Saints II, Patron Saints, 365 Saints, Voices of the Saints and Women in Church History)