When I wrote my first book about saints, I believed it was important for it to include every well-known saint and blessed, as well as many lesser-known ones. After all, it had annoyed me greatly as an adult convert to find out that some great saints had been omitted from the only saint book I owned. Granted, that gave me the happy opportunity to purchase more books about saints, but the inconvenience rankled me.
Unfortunately, I realized after publication of Saints that I had inadvertently omitted a holy young woman with a powerful life story: Saint Margaret of Castello. The only excuse I can offer is that I often confuse Saint Margaret with Saint Germain Cousin of Pibrac, whom I did include in my book. The biographies of both these women would be considered fairy tales or melodrama if they were not, sadly, true stories.
In 1287, Margaret was born to Parisio and Emilia, a noble couple living near Mercatello sul Metauro in Italy. It soon became obvious to her parents that the child had serious medical problems. Not only was she blind, but she had a severe curvature of her spine, she was abnormally short, and one of her legs was shorter than the other. Unkind tongues would call her a hunchback, a dwarf, and worse.
Her parents, though Christians, responded to her conditions with startling selfishness. They literally hid her from sight, claiming that their child was so ill that she was not expected to live, and they tried to avoid ever seeing their deformed daughter themselves. As nobility, they left that chore to their servants as much as possible. But when a visitor to their castle discovered six-year-old, blind Margaret walking through the halls and when that person began speaking about Margaret to others, her parents walled Margaret up in a room next to their chapel. While it was not uncommon at that time for holy men and women to decide to live in solitude in a room next to a church, it was an act of amazing cruelty on the part of her parents to condemn a young child to such isolation for a decade.
However, God supplied what Margaret lacked in her parents. A kindly maid gave her her name (since her parents did not appear to think to do so). A chaplain taught her about Christ, God’s love for her and for all men, and about bearing the sufferings of life. And everyone who took the time to stop and talk to the girl came away inspired by Margaret’s devotion, purity, kindness, and acceptance of trials. What Margaret may have lacked in her physical appearance, God supplied in abundance by pouring faith, hope, and charity in her soul. Though only a child, she forgave her parents and entered wholeheartedly into a vocation of time spent alone with God.
When Margaret was sixteen years old, her parents latched onto a new plan for their daughter: perhaps if they took her to a shrine located in a Franciscan church at another Italian city, now called Città di Castello, Margaret would be miraculously cured of all her deformities. After all, others had received miracles at that shrine, so why not Margaret? When they arrived at the church, it is assumed that her parents did indeed pray for her to be cured. But when that cure did not happen immediately, her parents left. They abandoned their blind, handicapped daughter in a strange city and went home, leaving her homeless, penniless, and alone. Once she realized that they had left her, Margaret was forced to live on the streets as a beggar.
Although her parents’ abandonment of her must have been devastating, Margaret was a young woman of great faith. Her kindness, intelligence, piety, and complete acceptance of her poverty was eventually noticed by the faithful residents of Castello. For a time, she lived with several kind but poor families in the city, moving from home to home so that no one family was overly burdened. In time, the nuns of the convent of the city invited her to join them. However, it didn’t take long for the nuns to realize that Margaret was far more devoted to God and to radical simplicity and poverty than they were. Her holy example was a bit too much for them to handle, so they asked her to leave.
Margaret returned to Castello, where she, though blind and handicapped, cared for some of the children of the town while their parents were working, even teaching them about their faith. Margaret also became a third order Dominican, wearing a religious habit but remaining a laywoman. She lived quietly in Castello for the rest of her life, greatly loved by the residents of the town but unknown elsewhere until her death at the age of thirty-three.
It is hard to believe that, although she was acknowledged as Blessed Margaret by the Church in 1609, she was not canonized and given the title of saint until 2021, under Pope Francis. It was surely an easy decision for the pope, since miracles have occurred at her tomb since her death in 1320 and since devotion to Margaret’s intercession has continued unabated for seven hundred years. In our modern era of prenatal diagnoses, where disabled children like Margaret are all too often removed from our sight by abortion long before birth, her witness to the dignity of life is particularly needed now.
But the most inspirational thing about Saint Margaret of Castello is not that she lived, but how she lived. Being born with physical limitations does not make you a saint, but bearing those physical limitations with patience is a great first step. Suffering from persecution does not guarantee holiness; but forgiving those who reject you is essential. Being homeless does not automatically make you a holy person; but turning to God even in times of poverty is yet another way we show Him that we trust Him with everything.
We do not become saints simply by suffering; all human beings suffer. We become saints by bearing our sufferings as Jesus Christ did. Saint Margaret, by her intercession and her example, can help us learn to do that.
(Many thanks to my friend Lisa, who kindly gave me this excellent short book about the holy young woman of Castello.)
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