Saint Catherine of Alexandria – Ursuline foundation day

Feast day: November 25th

Ursuline Foundation day: November 25th, 1535

The influence of St. Catherine can be found in many spheres of life. The annual St. Catherine’s Day Hat Parade takes place on the 25th of November in New Orleans. The parade followed an earlier French tradition in which young unmarried women of 25 years, known as Catherinettes, wore handmade hats using the colours of yellow and green – the former represented faith and the latter wisdom, and would  “cap” St. Catherine’s statue in the hope of getting a husband.  Besides being patron saint of milliners, St. Catherine  was also patron saint of philosophers, educators, navigators, wheelwrights, young women, to mention a few of the many occupations that she  was invoked  and prayed to as patron saint.

St. Catherine’s fame was not confined to various trades and occupations. November the 25th heralded the beginning of winter in Estonia. Her name is  found in places as far apart as Santa Catarina state in Brazil, the Santa Catalina Mountains in Arizona to the Catharina crater on the moon. She is also well known by the Catherine wheel fireworks, which captures the spiked wheel of her martyrdom. St. Catherine Colleges in Oxford and Cambridge bear the spiked wheels on their crests. Many churches from the grandeur of Se Cathedral in India to the modern church in Nairobi, Kenya are dedicated to her. Ireland is pockmarked with holy wells, churches, stain glass windows and tomb effigies of St Catherine. By far the most impressive site dedicated to her is the 6th century Monastery of St. Catherine, at the foot of Mount Horeb (Sinai) where her bones are enshrined in a marble coffin. An icon depicting six scenes of her life can also be seen there.  Scenes from her life can be visited as well in the Chapel dedicated to her in the Basilica of San Clemente in Rome painted by Masolino da Panicale .

The story of St. Catherine captured the imagination of many of the artists of the middle Ages, since she was the most painted saint of that time.  The most famous of these artists would be Caravaggio, Raphael, Hans Memling to mention but a few. The latter with many others, painted The Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine to The Christ Child. For Ursulines, Romanino’s depiction of The Mystic Marriage painted in 1536 and exhibited in the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, gives us a glimpse of what Angela would have looked like, prior to her death. St. Angela expresses her sense of mystical marriage succinctly, “You have Jesus Christ as your one and only treasure”. (5th Counsel)

St. Catherine was interwoven in St. Angela’s life before choosing her feast- day as the foundation day for her Company. Angela’s mother was called Catherine, she would have heard her story in The Golden Legend  read to her by her father and it was on St. Catherine Day that she arrived back safely from her perilous journey from the Holy Land.

So, what do we know about St. Catherine?

According to The Golden Legend, her father was King Costas of Egypt. She was born in the 4th century and received her education in the great schools of Alexandria, famous for their learning. According to the booklet published in the monastery of Sinai (where I had the privilege to visit) “A Syrian monk taught her about Jesus Christ, the bridegroom of the soul and converted her to Christianity; she was baptised Catherine.” (p.13) One story tells us that after her baptism she had a dream in which she was praying in front of an icon of the Virgin Mary and the Child Jesus.  The child offers her a ring as sign of espousal promising that she would be his bride for all time.

A persecution of the Christians followed under Maximinus. Catherine outwitted him in her arguments, much to his chagrin. He gathered fifty philosophers to continue the debate and she not only converts them to Christianity, by her faith, erudition and persuasive words, but gave them the courage to suffer martyrdom, through being burned by fire, by order of Maximinus. The Sinai booklet tells us that “Under torture she succeeded in converting members of the Emperor’s family and of the Roman aristocracy to Christianity…After Catherine’s execution her body vanished….About three centuries later, guided by a dream, a monk of the Monastery …found her body, brought it down from the mountain and placed it in a golden casket in the Church”. (p.13)

Echoes of Catherine’s life are found in St. Angela’s prayer; “My Lord…give me the grace to die rather than offend your Divine majesty …willingly I would shed my blood (if I could) in order to open up the blindness of…minds”. She ends the chapter on Virginity with these words, “Furthermore, let each one be willing to be ready to die sooner than ever consent to stain and profane such a sacred jewel”. Like Catherine, Angela used persuasive words right through her writings, words that build up and encourage, such as exhort, recommend, endeavour, strive, persevere, embrace, urge and learn. Perhaps her attitude to learning is best summed up by her words in the second counsel, “You will gain more by showing affection and kindness than by harshness and sharp reproofs”.  

We can appreciate the deep link between Catherine and Angela and why the latter choose the 25th of November, Catherine’s feast- day to gather 28 women in the room in St. Afra’s to sign their names to the book of the Company, the beginnings of the Company of St. Ursula.

Let us pray with Angela in evoking St. Catherine for her protection and care.

Moya OSU

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