St Catherine of Siena

The background of this painting of Saint Catherine of Siena is taken from a work of Ambrogio Lorenzetti, a Sienese artist of the fourteenth century. He was commissioned to paint a mural to be hung in the Town Hall of Siena (c. 1338-39) entitled The Allegory of Good and Bad Government.

Catherine is shown as part of the city-state she loved, interceding for it even as she was active in caring for its sick and poor.

As a mystic, on the one hand, she made a ‘cell in her heart’ and on the other hand, she was very active politically in both Church and State.

The painting is the work of Brother Bernard Coleman OFM of Canterbury, England and was commissioned by Sister Columba Cleary OP, Prioress General 1975-1987.

St Catherine of Siena

Many Dominican congregations of Sisters have St Catherine of Siena’s name in their title. Mother Rose Niland, our foundress, chose Catherine’s name for our Congregation, influenced mainly by the King Williamston and Stone congregations. The Decree of Approval of our Congregation encourages “all the Sisters of the Institute to an ever deeper commitment to their consecrated life in accordance with the spirit of St Dominic and under the constant protection of St Catherine of Siena”. So St Catherine is very much part of our identity.

“Preach the Truth as if you had a million voices. It is silence that kills the world”.
St Catherine of Siena

1347

1347

25 March, Feast of the Annunciation – Catherine and her twin Giovana are born Iacopo de Benincasa, a cloth-dyer, and Lapa di Puccio Paigenti. It is said that Catherine was the only child breast-fed by her Mother which may explain both why she survived her  twin, and the very close bond she had with Lapa.

1348

1348

Black Death breaks out in Siena

1353

1353

Returning home from her brother Stefano’s, Catherine has a vision of Christ above the Church of San Domenico. She sees Jesus dressed in Papal attire, accompanied by St Peter and St Paul. She is inspired to commit her life to God and the renewal of the Church. Catherine had numerous play-mates among her nieces and nephews, but dedicated a significant part of her time to prayer. Her parents permitted her to curtain off an alcove in the family dining room where she could pray undisturbed. She learns to build herself an interior ‘cell’ where she comes to know God and herself.

1354

1354

Catherine makes a private vow of virginity.

1359

1359-62

1359-62

Catherine’s mother, Lapa, was determined that her daughter should marry and put great pressure upon her. Catherine, however, was equally determined that her only Bridegroom would be Jesus Christ. In a gesture of resistance, Catherine cut off her crowning beauty – her hair! Catherine concentrated on building up an interior ‘cell’ in her heart through prayer. After a drawn out battle of wills, Catherine’s father, and later her mother, accepted her decision not to marry. Fra Tommaso della Fonte becomes her confessor and spiritual guide.

1362

1362

Bonventura, Catherine’s favourite sister, dies. Catherine undergoes another conversion and commits her life to God more completely. Fra Tommaso della Fonte becomes her confessor.

1362

1362

Bonaventura, Catherine’s favourite sister dies. Catherine undergoes a conversion experience and dedicates herself anew to God more completely. She begins to practice an ascetical form of life, with rigorous fasting. Fra Tommaso della Fonte becomes her confessor.

1363

1363

1363

(or 1364) Catherine earnestly desired to commit herself publicly to serve God and the Church. She wished to join the Dominican Mantellate, a group of lay women, mainly widows, who were bound by vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and dedicated to prayer and charitable works. They were hesitant to admit such a young girl but Catherine was determined. She finally convinced her mother, Lapa, who pleaded with the Prioress on Catherine’s behalf. Catherine entered a three year period of intense prayer in solitude, living in near seclusion at home, punctuated by frequent trips to San Domenico, and visits from priests and hermits coming to instruct her. During these years Catherine mysteriously learned to read – a gift imparted to her by Jesus with.

1367

1367

1367

In prayer, Catherine experiences a mystical marriage to her Bridegroom, Jesus Christ. Our Lady presented her to Jesus who gave her a wedding ring, saying to her: “I, your Creator and Saviour, espouse you in the faith, that you will keep ever pure until you celebrate your eternal nuptials with me in Heaven” (Bl. Raimondo da Capua, S. Caterina da Siena, Legenda maior, n. 115, Siena 1998). Catherine alone could see this ring. After this experience she hears the Lord tell her: “Remember that I have laid down two commandments of love: love of me and love of your neighbour … It is the justice of these two commandments that I want you now to fulfil. On two feet you must walk my way.” Catherine ends her time of seclusion and undertakes a life of apostolic service, particularly among the poor and needy in Siena.

1368

1368

Catherine’s beloved father dies. A ‘family’ of followers begins to gather around her, including other Mantellate, Dominican friars (including priests), and a host of lay people.

1370

1370

Siena is beset by famine. During the Summer, Catherine has a series of intense mystical encounters which climax in her ‘mystical death’. From this moment, she is ever more enthused and determined to preach Christ’s message. Catherine’s reputation is spreading: she is called upon to give spiritual direction and work beyond Siena, particularly peace-making among the Italian city-states. She begins writing letters and is developing a three-fold message for the Church: (1) the need for radical renewal in holiness of all Christians; (2) the need for the Pope to return to Rome; (3) that Christians should unite among themselves and undertake a crusade to regain the holy places in Palestine.

1374

1374

Catherine visits Florence for the first time. She was summoned to the Dominican General Chapter to account for her actions before the Friars. Fra Raymond of Capua (later Master of the Order) is appointed her confessor and spiritual guide. When Raymond could not travel with Catherine, they corresponded. Their letters are one example of a beautiful spiritual friendship. The Black Death returns to Siena. Catherine devotes herself to nursing the sick of the City.

1375

1375

1375

Catherine befriended, Niccolo di Toldo, a young Perugian accused of fomenting riot in Siena and condemned to death. Niccolo refused to receive a priest but Catherine, terrified at the thought of a soul lost, went to him. She accompanied Niccolo to the executioner’s block: [H]e arrived, as a meek lamb, and seeing me, he began to laugh, and he wanted me to make the sign of the cross. When he received the sign, I said, “Come on! to the nuptials, my sweet brother! for soon you will be in life without end.” He got down with great meekness, and I stretched out his neck, and leaning down, I reminded him of the blood of the Lamb. His mouth said nothing but “Jesus” and “Catherine.” And, as he was saying thus, I received his head in my hands, closing his eyes on divine goodness and saying, “I will!” As Niccolo died, Catherine had a vision of him being received into Heaven.

1376

1376

1376

Florence is placed under papal interdict by Pope Gregory XI – no sacraments may be celebrated even under pain of death. The people of Florence implore Catherine to intercede on their behalf with Pope Gregory, still stationed at Avignon and under the influence of French cardinals who have little love for the Florentines or indeed other Italian cities. Catherine pleads with Gregory to return to Rome, the true home of the Papacy. Finally, Gregory concedes and departs Avignon on 13 September. Catherine and her ‘family’ follow suit, returning to Siena by a different route.

1377

1377

Pope Gregory arrives in Rome in January. Catherine goes to Belcaro, near Siena, where she founds a monastery. Raymond of Capua is appointed Priory of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome, and leaves Siena. Catherine learns to write during this year and begins work on her Dialogue, her theological masterpiece which takes the form of a dialogue between the soul and the Father. Much of it is recorded by secretaries since Catherine composes it during prayer and times of ecstasy.

1378

1378

Pope Gregory sends Catherine to Florence once more to broker peace (either December 1377 or early 1378). Catherine continues work on her Dialogue. Gregory XI dies on 27 March and is succeeded by Urban VI after a fractious and quick conclave. Riots break out in Florence in June and Catherine is almost assassinated. Finally, peace is declared between Florence and the Papacy at the end of July and Catherine returns to Siena. The Dialogue is completed in October. The French Cardinals turn against Pope Urban and return to Avignon where they elect an anti-Pope, Clement VII, on 20 September. The Church is in schism. Catherine is adamant in her support of Urban. In November, Urban summons Catherine to Rome where she takes up residence with members of her ‘family’ in a house near Santa Maria sopra Minerva. Urban sends Raymond of Capua on a mission for him. It is the last Catherine sees of him.

1380

1380

1380

Catherine’s last months were a time of great suffering – physical and spiritual. She offered her life for the re-unification of the Church, praying that the schism would be brought to an end. For as long as she was able, she made the journey from her home to St Peter’s to pray there. At home, she wrote letters to civil and church leaders begging them to be reconciled to the true Pope, Urban VI. When she could no longer go out, she prayed from her bed. To her faithful family, whom she summoned to her bedside, she said: Do not be cast down, my darling children, at my passing. Rather share with me in my joy and congratulate me, for now the time has gome for me to rest in the peaceful sea, the eternal God. But to you I make this solemn promise, that I will be more helpful to you after my death than I have ever been, or ever could be, while still with you in this world with all its troubles. However, whatever happens now I place everything in the hands of my eternal Spouse: my life, my death, all that I am and all that I have. (R III, 4) After uttering a final prayer, Lord, into your hands I commit my spirit, Catherine died. She was only 33 years old.

St Catherine of Siena

As a Dominican woman St Catherine is an appropriate role model as we live our lives today. She was not a nun, but belonged to the Dominican Lay group, the Mantellate, in Siena, and was involved with them in works of compassion, caring for the sick and the poor. 

Catherine reminds us that with God’s grace it is possible to have an influence in the Church and in the world. This is our vocation.

She lived to the utmost the Dominican motto “to contemplate and to give to others the fruits of our contemplation”. Very early in her life she discovered the joy of contemplation. She had a passionate love of God, of Jesus, and spent many hours in prayer.

Even when she was busy she had “a cell within’’ where she kept in touch with God at all times. We, sisters, are called to a life of prayer and contemplation. Our Constitutions guide us in this: “Prayer is the centre of our lives, deepening our awareness of the presence of God and leading us to bring to others an awareness of this presence’’. Catherine loved the Divine Office and is portrayed by artists reciting it with Jesus. The Prayer of the Church is celebrated in our communities every day.

In the year 1970 Catherine was recognised by the Church as a theologian. She had an intense desire to know God, to know about God. She never went to school or university, but learned her theology from her prayer and contemplation, from listening to her Dominican brethren, from priests from other orders, from conversations. She talked incessantly about God, about Jesus. The great doctrines of the Church were her constant study. As Dominican sisters we follow her in this. We recognise the need to study and to develop our knowledge of theology. A number of sisters have degrees in theology and we are constantly reading, attending talks and lectures. Our Constitutions tell us that study is “essentially a reflective pondering on the word of God and on the world we live in”. 

Very early in her life God called Catherine to move out into the society in which she lived and to preach the Gospel. She loved people and engaged with them. In fact, she was deeply involved in the world around her. She preached in many ways: through conversations with individuals, through counselling, through friendships, through the community that gathered around her, through letter writing. She would certainly have made use of the media for her preaching .

We follow Catherine in her zeal for preaching. In our 2010 Chapter we took as our motto “Make the preaching of the Good News your life’s work” (2 Tim 4:5), so preaching the Gospel is what we are about. Our call is to evangelise through education. In the past this was done mainly through schools. Now we have a variety of ministries.  

Our convents are centres of prayer, learning and hospitality. We have centres for preaching at the Niland Centre, at Harpenden, at Cricklewood in the UK; and a new prayer garden project in  South Africa. One of our sisters lectures at the Angelicum, Dominican University in Rome. Our sisters in South Africa work with the poor, with street children, in schools, in catechetics. We hope that our preaching brings hope to our troubled world. The world at the time of Catherine was very similar to our times: problems in the Church, power struggles between nations, lack of peace.

Catherine knew what it was like to interact with people. She belonged to a large family, a large household, and she created a community of diverse people around her. She must at times have found this shared life difficult. She was so inflamed with God’s love and zeal for his glory that those who fell far below her standard must often have exasperated her. She wrote: “ The mercy I wish for myself I give to others”. Her teaching on the second great commandment is very deep and down to earth. She had an intense desire for the salvation of all. She often said: “My soul hungered for their salvation”. As sisters who live in community we are inspired by Catherine’s approach to others, and try to live it as best we can. Community life is essential for us.

Traditionally St Catherine has often been portrayed mainly in terms of a rather neurotic woman and the emphasis has been on her ecstasies and asceticism. However, especially since she has been made Doctor of the Church, studies and new translations have been made of her written works and a new emphasis has emerged. She is recognised as a very creative theologian, a deeply beautiful mystic, and a passionate lover of peace and justice. Saint Catherine remains an inspiration to us, sisters.

Dominican Life

Community, Prayer, Study and Preaching are the four ‘pillars’ of our Dominican life

Our Story

Explore the story behind our Dominican order 

Mother Rose Niland

Foundress of the “Dominican Sisters of Saint Catherine of Siena of Newcastle, Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa”

Obituaries

In memory of our dearly departed Sisters
Rest in Peace

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