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A patron saint for single mothers

St. Margaret of Cortona (1247-97)

Feast day: Feb. 22

In 1728 when Margaret of Cortona was canonized, she was held up as a model for penitent sinners. Today she is more likely to be invoked by mothers who, for whatever reason, are raising their children alone. But St. Margaret also teaches us that in most cases saints are not born, but are made. And it was more difficult for some to become saintly than for others.

Margaret's biographers tell us that she was a beautiful, lively little girl who could be very sweet - as long as she got her way. And usually her parents indulged her. All that ended when Margaret was 7 and her mother died. Very soon thereafter Margaret's father remarried. We are told that Margaret and her stepmother disliked each other almost from the first moment they met.

The stepmother tried to control Margaret, so to escape her, the child spent more and more time away from the house. As Margaret grew older, she became even more beautiful. The older boys in the village began to pay attention to her - and Margaret liked it. We don't know if Margaret had any sexual experiences with the village boys; what we do know is that when she was only 13 or 14 years old, Arsenio, the 16-year-old son of the local baron, saw Margaret and invited her to live with him as his mistress. Margaret accepted.

Margaret was thrilled with her new situation. Instead of the drudgery of peasant life, she had servants who did everything for her. Instead of a scolding stepmother, she had a lover who wanted to please her. True, Arsenio had told her candidly that he would never marry her, but Margaret felt confident that she could change his mind.

The young couple lived together for nine years. Margaret bore Arsenio a son, but still he would not marry her. Then one day Arsenio left home for several days to attend to business at one of his family's outlying estates. He never returned. Arsenio was murdered in the forest near his castle, and it was Margaret, led by Arsenio's dog, who discovered her lover's body lying in a shallow pit beneath a pile of dry brush and dead branches. That was the darkest moment of her life and the moment of her conversion.

While they lived together, neither Margaret nor Arsenio had given any thought to the state of their souls. Now Margaret wondered if Arsenio had had time to repent before he died. And she wondered, if death came suddenly to her, would she have the sense to beg for God's forgiveness?

Determined to amend her life and to raise her son properly, Margaret set out for Cortona where the Franciscan friars had a reputation for helping repentant sinners. The Franciscans exceeded their reputation. They found Margaret and her son a home with two pious, unmarried sisters. They assigned two priests to act as Margaret's spiritual directors. And when her son was old enough to go to school, the friars arranged for him to study at an academy in the nearby town of Arezzo.

Perhaps because she was never certain of the fate of Arsenio's soul, Margaret became devoted to the poor souls in purgatory. As she lay dying she had a vision of a vast crowd streaming out of heaven to meet her: They were the souls that she, a once-notorious sinner, had ransomed with her prayers.

Craughwell is the author of This Saint Will Change Your Life (Quirk, 2012) and St. Peter's Bones: How the Relics of the First Pope Were Lost and Found … Then Lost and Found Again (Image Books, 2014).

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2005