Catherine of Genoa
1447 - 1510
Saint Catherine of Genoa (Caterina Fieschi Adorno), was born at Genoa in
1447 and died at the same place September 15, 1510. She was an Italian Roman Catholic saint and mystic, admired
for her work among the sick and the poor and remembered because of various
writings describing both these actions and her mystical experiences. She was a
member of the noble Fieschi family, and spent most of her life and her means
serving the sick, especially during the plague which ravaged Genoa in 1497 and
1501. She died in that city in 1510.
Her fame outside her native city is connected with the publication in 1551 of
the book known in English as the Life and Doctrine of Saint Catherine of Genoa.
She and her teaching were the subject of Baron Friedrich von Hügel's classic
work The Mystical Element of Religion (1908).
Catherine was born in Genoa in 1447, the last of five children. Catherine's
parents were Jacopo Fieschi and Francesca di Negro, both of illustrious Italian
birth. The family was connected to two previous popes, and Jacopo became Viceroy
Catherine wished to enter a convent when about 13, perhaps inspired by her
sister Limbania who was an Augustinian nun, but the nuns to whom her
confessor applied refused her on account of her youth, after which she appears
to have put the idea aside without any further attempt. After her father’s
death in 1463, she was married by her parents' wish at age 16 to a young Genoese
nobleman, Giuliano Adorno, a man who, after several experiences in the area of
trade and in the military world in the Middle East, had returned to Genoa to get
married. Their marriage was probably a ploy to end the feud between their two
families. The childless marriage turned out wretchedly: Giuliano proved to
be faithless, violent-tempered and a spendthrift, and he made the life of his
wife a misery. Details are scanty, but it seems at least clear that Catherine
spent the first five years of her marriage in silent, melancholy submission to
her husband; and that she then, for another five years, turned a little to the
world for consolation in her troubles. Then, ten years after her marriage,
she prayed "that for three months He (God) may keep me (Catherine) sick in bed"
so that she might escape her marriage, but her prayer went unanswered.
She was converted by a mystical experience during confession on 22 March 1473;
her conversion is described as an overpowering sense of God's love for her.
After this revelation occurred, she abruptly left the church, without finishing
her confession. This marked the beginning of her life of close union with God in
prayer, without using forms of prayer such as the rosary. She began to
receive Communion almost daily, a practice extremely rare for lay people in the
Middle Ages, and she underwent remarkable mental and at times almost
pathological experiences, the subject of Friedrich von Hügel's study The
Mystical Element of Religion.
She combined this with unselfish service to the sick in a hospital at Genoa, in
which her husband joined her after he, too, had been converted. He later became a Franciscan tertiary, but she joined no religious order. Her husband's
spending had ruined them financially. He and Catherine decided to live in the
Pammatone, a large hospital in Genoa, and to dedicate themselves to works of
charity there. She eventually became manager and treasurer of the hospital.
She died in 1510, worn out with labours of body and soul. Her death had been
slow with many days of pain and suffering as she experienced visions and wavered
between life and death.
For about 25 years, St. Catherine, though frequently going to confession, was
unable to open her mind for direction to anyone; but towards the end of her life
a Father Marabotti was appointed to be her spiritual guide. He had been a
director of the hospital where her husband died in 1497. To him she explained
her states, past and present, and he compiled the Memoirs. During this period,
her life was devoted to her relationship with God, through "interior inspiration"
In 1551, 41 years after her death, a book about her life and teaching was
published, entitled Libro de la vita mirabile et dottrina santa de la Beata
Caterinetta de Genoa. This is the source of her "Dialogues on the Soul and
the Body" and her "Treatise on Purgatory", which are often printed separately. Her authorship of these has been denied, and it used to be thought that another
mystic, the Augustinian canoness Battistina Vernazza, who lived in a monastery
in Genoa from 1510 till her death in 1587, had edited the two works, a
suggestion discredited by recent scholarship, which attributes a large part of
both works to St. Catherine, though they received their final literary form only
after her death.
Catherine's thought on purgatory, for which she is particularly known, and her
way of describing it has original characteristics in relation to her era.
Beatification and canonization
Catherine's writings were examined by the Vatican's Holy Office and pronounced
to contain doctrine that would be enough, in itself, to prove her sanctity, and
she was beatified in 1675 by Pope Clement X, and canonized in 1737 by Pope
Clement XII. Her writings also became sources of inspiration for other
religious leaders such as Saints Robert Bellarmine and Francis de Sales and
Cardinal Henry Edward Manning. St Catherine of Genoa's liturgical feast is
celebrated on 15 September. Pope Pius XII declared her patroness of the
hospitals in Italy.
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