On March 7, the Church celebrates two great saints who have been honored by Catholics for more than 1800 years: Saints Perpetua and Felicity. Unlike so many other famous saints, Perpetua and Felicity were not priests, popes, or nuns. Instead, they were ordinary Catholic laywomen. But like every other saint, they lived their faith in Jesus Christ in an extraordinary way.
How many laywomen have been recognized as saints or blesseds by the Church? Unfortunately, that’s a complicated question, but clearly not because the Church has been slow to recognize laywomen as saints.
As I have already shown, it is impossible for us to know exactly how many men, women, and children have died as martyrs for their faith in Christ. Although the Church’s official liturgical calendar of saints includes names and numbers for many large groups of saints, there are sixty groups of martyrs also recognized, but whose names we do not know. Many of those martyrs may have been laywomen.
One example of a large group of martyrs makes the point well. The Church remembers 4,966 martyrs who died in North Africa for their faith in the year 483. Surely there were more than a few wives and mothers among them.
In the Church’s calendar, there are many women who entered religious life and are now recognized as saints or blesseds. That total number includes eighty-one abbesses, 241 nuns, 446 religious sisters, and 146 virgins.1 All of those women lived in their families for some period of time before entering their religious communities. While Saint Agnes of Montepulciano (1268-1317) talked her parents into letting her go a Franciscan convent when she was only nine years old, Saint Theresa of Portugal (1178-1250) didn’t become a Cistercian nun until after she had become a grandmother and a widow.
The Church recognizes 238 holy men who have become hermits, but only ten female hermits (sometimes called hermitesses). This is not too surprising, considering the feminine love for community and communication.
Almost all of the female children and teenagers who are recognized as saints and blesseds died as martyrs. Not all died as martyrs of purity, but many did.
Many people are surprised to learn that one of the greatest female saints in the history of the Church was a laywoman: Saint Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) was a Dominican tertiary. Although she and the other tertiaries in her Italian town wore a distinctive habit, they were technically laywomen who were also members of the Dominican third order. There are sixty-three holy women in the Church’s calendar who were members of a third order.
There are also eight women who lived as oblates and are now considered saints. These women never took religious vows, but lived near a religious community. For example, Blessed Itala Mela (1904-1957) lived as a Benedictine oblate in La Spezia, Italy, and was known for her mystical writings.
But the vocations we most associate with laywomen are the vocations of wife and mother. The Church recognizes 155 wives, eighty-two mothers, and eighty-two widows as saints or blesseds.2
A total of 468 female saints and blesseds lived as laywomen for all or most of their lives. This number includes great queens such as Saint Clotilda of France (475-545), who married a pagan king and converted him to the faith. It also includes Saint Zita of Lucca (1218-1278), a holy woman who served as a humble housekeeper all her life. The total includes Saint Monica (d. 387), who prayed her wayward son, the future Saint Augustine of Hippo, into the Church. It also includes Saint Gianna Molla (1922-1962), who chose to refuse medical treatment to protect her unborn child, although at the cost of her life.
And that grand total includes Saints Perpetua and Felicity. Perpetua was a twenty-two-year-old married woman and the mother of a child whom she was still nursing. She lived in Carthage (modern Tunisia), and Felicity, who was pregnant, was her maid.3 The two women somehow found out about Jesus Christ and decided to enter the Church, although it was illegal to do so. During a crackdown on Christians under orders from Roman emperor Septimus Severus, they and four male catechumens were found and arrested. All six were undergoing instruction in the faith and were probably baptized by a deacon who visited them in prison. Felicity gave birth while in prison, and one of the men died there.
Both Perpetua’s child and Felicity’s baby were taken away from them near the end. On March 7, 203, the five remaining Christians were sent into a public arena, where wild animals attacked them and where they were ultimately executed by gladiators.
Perpetua had written down a description of her arrest, trial, and imprisonment, and another Christian who did not die with them added a preface and an account of the martyrs’ deaths. This work is now called “The Passion of the Holy Martyrs Perpetua and Felicity”. This account became so popular with early Catholics that it was sometimes read at Mass.
Why did it seem appropriate for the sacred liturgy? “The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity” includes visions, prayers, and a storyline that is reminiscent of Good Friday, but it also includes personal details that resonate with ordinary women.
Perpetua’s greatest agony was not over being in prison: it was over her family. She was ready to die for the Savior she loved, but her father was a pagan who bitterly opposed her decision to become a Catholic. She mourned the pain that her imprisonment caused her mother and brother, and tried to encourage them. Her son was initially taken from her in prison, but when she was allowed to keep and nurse him for a time, she was at peace and no longer anxious about her fate.
Saints Perpetua, Felicity, and all the other holy laywomen of the Church are great inspirations for those of us with families and children. They remind us that we are all called to holiness in the messiness of daily life, whether that be in monotonous chores or momentous medical decisions, in the daily grind or great trials like Perpetua’s. And it is possible for us to be holy women, as they were holy women. That’s because God continues to grant the gift of extraordinary faith even to ordinary women, if we will only ask.
1 The number of virgins given here includes those who have been traditionally called virgins, as well as those who are known under the modern title of consecrated virgins.
2 Note that there is some overlap in these numbers. For example, all of the women who became widows were wives, but not all those who were wives also became widows.
3 It is not clear why Perpetua’s husband and the father of Felicity’s baby do not appear in the account of their martyrdoms.
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Cant they just be saints??…this doesnt seem to be enough anymore, why?…the reverse why is important….blessings…
Yes, while men have taken the active lead and notoriety, seemingly in the shadows God’s daughters have made tremendous contribution to the faith and fidelity to Christ. From experience here and in elsewhere, Africa, Europe it was and still remains the women who showed the greater affinity to worship and practice, more open in expressing spiritual awareness.
Alright. I’ll go ahead and make an outrageously patronizing observation. After creating Man, God realized he had to create woman so save the world.
E veremente fantastico!
Can you do a quick scan with this one: How many Saints or Blesseds ( and names!) were ever incarcerated or in prison? (Obviously the 11 apostle, Kolbe and others come to mind immediately.) I am writing a song about saints.
John of the Cross, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. Lucia, Francisco, Jacinta. Thomas Moore. St. Bernadette and her family couldn’t afford housing so they chose to live in a prison. Edmund Campion. How about those saints enslaved?
There surely are many more whose names do not readily come to mind.
Before modern times, non-martyred saints were were laywomen (or laymen for that matter) were often royalty, nobility, or wealthy. Their status helped draw attention to their holiness and thus led to canonization.
St. Felicity was (or had been) a slave but she wasn’t identified as St. Perpetua’s servant. The latter, as a free Roman matron, plays the “lady card” brilliantly to get better treatment for the group and even has to encourage her executioner to stab her. Do read their PASSION. It’s the most interesting of all the ancient accounts of martyrdom.
But could we please, please get the details of St. Gianna’s life straight? She suffered from a fibroid tumor which was removed. She actually died of peritonitis after prolonged natural labor. I misstated the facts in an article once and became obsessed about this.
Ignatius offers “Saint Gianna Molla” written in part by her husband. I highly recommend it for a story filled with beautiful pathos. Girls and mothers and men who love mothers will weep.
“You so desired another child. You prayed and asked that the Lord would hear you. The Lord heard you, but this divine grace required the sacrifice of your life.
Many times you asked whether you were a worry to me….
I heard not a word from you in all those long months [Gianna’s miofibroma was diagnosed in the 2nd month of herfull term pregnancy.] about your awareness as a physician of what was ahead of you. Certainly, this was to keep me from suffering.
I watched you silently tidying up every corner of our house, every drawer, every dress, every personal object day after day as if for a long trip. But I did not dare to ask myself why.
Only a few days before the birth, in a firm and at the same time peaceful tone, with a profound gaze I have never forgotten, you declared to me: ‘If you have to decide between me and the baby, there is to be no hesitation. Choose the baby. I demand it. Save it!’….
Holy Saturday morning we had the incredible joy; the divine gift of the child we awaited–Gianna Emanuela.
A few hours later, your sufferings began, extraordinary, beyond your strength, sufferings which made you continually call on your mother, who was already in heaven….
When you took our little infant in your arms, you looked at her so affectionately, with a look that betrayed your unspeakable suffering at not being able to look after her, to raise her, to see her again….” (pp. 121-22).
The beautiful story does not end there.
As with the life of Christ, the death of Gianna was only the beginning of spectacular bestowals of greater grace brought about by and through her suffering.