Fearless Feminist Saints

Religious women, living and dead, who refused to let men dictate how they lived their lives.
Asker Anonyme Asks:
Where did the fresco of Priscilla and Aquia originate?
fearlessfeministsaints fearlessfeministsaints Said:

While not ~officially~ a fresco depicting Priscilla and Aquia, this one found on a wall of a house in Pompeii has been used to describe the historical couple. Hope this helps!

Saint Grand Duchess Elisabeth of Russia: the original People’s Princess

I am leaving a glittering world where I had a glittering position, but with all of you I am descending into a greater world - the world of the poor and the suffering.

Born in Hesse, Germany, in 1864, Elisabeth was born into a royal family filled with names such as England’s Queen Victoria and Russia’s last Duchess Alexandra. As the granddaughter of Queen Victoria, Elisabeth spoke both English and German. Her childhood was unlike many royal children’s. Her parents made sure she and her siblings cleaned their own bedrooms and her mother made all of their clothing. During the Austro-Prussian War, Elisabeth accompanied her mother on visits to local hospitals.

She had many suitors and was known for her great beauty and kindness to the poor. At the age of 20, she married Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, the fifth son of Tsar Alexander II of Russia.In 1891, she adopted the faith of her husband, Russian Orthodoxy. 

Sadly, her marriage did not last long. On February 18, 1905, her husband was killed assassinated. Elisabeth forgave the killer of her husband, and brought a bible and an icon to him, hoping he would repent. 

Elisabeth became a vegetarian and wore mourning clothes after the death of her husband. Four years after his death, she sold all of her luxurious possessions. With the money she earned, she opened the Convent of Saints Martha and Mary, and she became the Abbess. She and 17 other sisters were dedicated as Sisters of Love and Mercy, with a mission to service to the poor in various apostolates, such as a hospital, pharmacy, and an orphanage.

In 1918, Elisabeth and two other sisters were arrested. They were transported across Russia until finally arriving in Alapaevsk. There, on the 18 of July, she and another sister were thrown into a mine shaft with others. Surviving the initial fall, it is said the two sang orthodox hymns in the shaft. A grenade was thrown, but the hymns continued. Finally, brushwood was set alight and the sisters were murdered.

Her remains are buried in Jerusalem at the Church of Maria Magdalene. She was canonized by the Orthodox Church in 1981. She is one of the 20 Martyrs of the 21st century to be memorized at the Great West Door of Westminster Cathedral. 

Sr. Dorothy Stang, S.N.D., Martyr for the Poor and Creation

Born in Dayton, Ohio, Dorothy Stang entered the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur in 1948 and professed her final vows in the mid 1950s. For fifteen years, she taught in various elementary schools in the United States, before beginning her ministry in Brazil.

In 1966, Sr. Dorothy worked in Coroata, with an organization of the Catholic Church called the Pastoral Land Commission. This group works for the rights of rural land workers and for reforms in Brazil. The rainforest was crucial to the life and work of many peasants and land workers, and the land was threatened by illegal logging and power plays. This concerned Sr. Dorothy, and she began to fight against it. 

In the late 1990s, her name was put on a death list because of her work for local people and the rainforest. On February 12, 2005, one week after meeting with Brazilian human rights officials about illegal logging and threats from landowners, Sr. Dorothy was shot and murdered. 

As the men approached her to kill her, she pulled out her bible and read, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice…”

After her death, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio da Silva designated over 20,000 square miles as protected. This included the area Sr. Dorothy called her home, and the area where the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur still work.  

Her life has been discussed in the recent documentary They Killed Sr. Dorothy. An opera based on her life, Angel of the Amazon was produced in 2010. 

Sources: here and here

Saint Katharine Drexel: Champion of Catholic Education for Minorities

Katharine was born to a wildly wealthy Philadelphia family in 1858. By “wildly wealthy,” I mean that her family had so much money that they founded a university (Drexel University). Her family traveled all over the world, she was well educated, and her family was incredibly charitable. 

She made her debut, as all young proper ladies did. However, after nursing her stepmother through a terrible, painful battle with cancer, Katharine realized that all the money in the world could not cure cancer, could not save her from death. She began to wonder what she could do with her life.

First she thought she would join a contemplative order (cloistered nuns). The bishop asked her to pray and wait. While “praying and waiting,” Katharine began several charities to aid  Native American communities in need in the western United States. In 1886, she was able to meet with the Pope personally and asked him to send missionaries to the communities she was supporting. He told her to become a missionary herself.

She began the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, giving up marriage and seven million dollars (in 19th century money!). Her religious order was dedicated to serving the needs of the Native American and African American communities, particularly the needs of children. By the 1940s, she had begun a system of Catholic schools for children of color throughout the United States (many Catholic schools were still segregated). She created Xavier University in New Orleans, one of her most famous schools. When she purchased the building for the Xavier prep school in New Orleans, however, vandals destroyed every window.

Over her 65 years in religious life—Katharine died at age 96—she had spent nearly $20 million educating those whom other Catholic schools had refused. The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament  still work in minority communities today. 

Her feast day is March 3. She is the patroness of racial justice and philanthropists.

Sr. Ardeth Platte, O.P: Anti-Nuclear Activist and the Nun from Orange is the New Black

Ardeth Platte was born in Michigan in 1936, educated at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids before entering the Dominican Sisters in 1954. After her formation, Sr. Ardeth never stopped advocating for marginalized. Her work includes: 

  • The founding of the St. Joseph Alternative Education Center in Saginaw in 1967, a school which educated inner city children who had been rejected from other schools.
  • In 1976, Sr. Ardeth was a member of the Women’s Leadership Conference in Saginaw. Because of this Conference, a Rape Crisis Center and a home for women who were abused were founded
  • The founding of the Home for Peace and Justice, which seeks to educate about the connections between poverty, injustice, and the growing militarism of the United States.
  • The peaceful protest with fellow Dominican Sister Carol Gilbert against the Wurtsmith Airforce Base in Oscoda, MI, which deployed bombers with nuclear warheads. The base closed. 
  • The peaceful protests against K.I Sawyer Airforce Base in Gwinn, MI, which also closed.

On October 6, 2002, Sr. Ardeth, Sr. Carol Gilbert, and Sr. Jackie Hudson, broke into an unmanned Minuteman III missile site in Colorado. Armed with box cutters, a hammer, and several baby bottles filled with their own blood, they painted crosses of blood on the silo. Sr. Carol was sentenced to 30 months in prison, while Sr. Ardeth was sentenced to 41 months. Sr. Jackie was also imprisoned. She later broke into the Oak Ridge facility, was imprisoned, but was allowed to return home to die (she died in August of 2011). The three were branded as “terrorists” and placed on a national watch list, all for telling the truth about the horror of nuclear weapons. 

Most people probably know about Sr. Ardeth Platte from Orange is the New Black. The character of Sr. Ingalls is based on her. 

Saint Julian of Norwich: Mystic, writer, hermitess, and cat lady

Not much is known about Julian, other than that she lived in Norwich, England, from 1342-1416, published the first book in English written by a woman, and spoke to Margery Kempe (medieval mystic who wrote the first autobiography to be published in English, go women!) in person. 

At age 30, Julian became very ill and almost died. During this time, she had visions of Jesus Christ. She wrote these down immediately when she became well, in what would become Revelations of Divine Love. 

Her vision of God was that of a compassionate one who loved all of his creations. He wanted to save all of humanity and that he possessed no wrath—only humans did. She believed God was both father and mother. Sin was to be seen as a “learning process,” a natural part in growing in life.

Her feast is celebrated on the 8th of May in the Anglican and Lutheran traditions, and on the 13th of May in the Catholic Church. She is portrayed many times with a hazelnut, due to a description found in her book, or with a cat.

God loved us before he made us; and his love has never diminished and never shall.” —from Revelations of Divine Love

Priscilla: The Woman whose Name Came First

Priscilla was married to Aquila, and lived in Rome. She was one of the first converts, and thought to be a great teacher. Incredibly gifted in ministry, she and her husband both did missionary and ministry work, although her husband was also a tentmaker. Her prominence and importance to early Christianity can be seen in the placement of her name in the Acts of the Apostles: almost each time the two are mentioned in the bible, her name comes first. For a woman to be able to preach, be considered a teacher, and to have her name mentioned before her husband’s, is incredible. 

Sr. Maura Clarke, MM,  Sr. Ita Ford, MM, Sr. Dorothy Kazel, OSU, and Jean Donovan: The Four Churchwomen of El Salvador

These two Maryknoll Missionary sisters, an Ursuline, and a lay woman were working in El Salvador with displaced refugees due to the ongoing civil war. They ministered to women and children caught in the crossfire and brought the aged and young children to refugee centers. 

A military death squad of the right-wing military government captured the four women en route to a conference of the Maryknoll order. They were tortured, raped, murdered, and buried in a shallow grave. Locals found the grave and Maryknoll Missionary sisters in the area unearthed the sisters. Jean and Dorothy were flown to the United States for burial, while Maura and Ita, per custom of the Missioners, were buried in the country where they served. 

Those who were responsible were found guilty and sentenced to thirty years in prison. Three were released in 1998 for good behavior. Two have petitioned for pardons. The head of the Salvadorian National Guard at the time, whose troops were responsible and another general emigrated to the United States. 

Jean Donovan, who was a lay missioner (she had a boyfriend in London and family in Miami), wrote to her friend: “Life continues with many interruptions. People in our positions really have to die to ourselves and our wealth to gain the spirituality of the poor and oppressed.” She was killed several months later.

Sr. Teresa Forcades, O.S.B: The politician from a Monastery

Sr. Teresa did not have the most straightforward path to the convent. Raised by non-believing parents in Spain, she was sent to a convent school. She then studied medicine in Spain before leaving for the United States to complete her residency and later completed a Master of Divinity from Harvard Divinity School on scholarship.

In order to prepare for her examinations, she stayed at the Benedictine convent in Montserrat, which is where she felt the call to the religious life. She entered the convent, but continued her studies, completing degrees in public health and theology.

Sr. Teresa’s abbess was asked by a Vatican official to order Sr. Teresa to publicly declare her commitment to church teachings. Sr. Teresa has disagreed many times with the Church, especially in regards to abortion. While she believes in a fetus’ right to life, she also believes in a woman’s right of self determination that is absolute. Her belief is that feminism is part of liberation theology. 

She has publicly called the church “misogynist and patriarchal in structure.” She also has reserved the right to criticize the Church.

Sr. Teresa began a movement called Proces Constituent, which has garnered much support in the Catalan region of Spain. Her ten-point plan includes 

  • housing for all and end to foreclosures
  • repeal of immigration laws
  • an individual’s right to control their own body

She says she will not run for political office.

St. Mary Magdalene: The Saint Everyone Gets Wrong

First, the things Mary Magdalene is not: Jesus’ secret wife, Jesus’ secret lover, the founder of another sect of Christianity, or a prostitute.

The things Mary Magdalene is: only Apostle other than John to stay with Jesus during the Crucifixion, first one to see Jesus after his Resurrection, and the one who goes to tell the other Apostles that Jesus is alive. 

Jesus cured her of seven demons, and she became one of his most devoted followers. During his crucifixion, she is present at his passion, death, and resurrection. 

In the Gospel of John, Mary is weeping at the tomb when Jesus approaches her. She, not realizing who He is, asks when the body is. When he calls her by name, she recognizes him, calls him teacher. She then goes and tells the other Apostles, “I have seen the Lord!” This earned her the title, “Apostle to the Apostles.”

There is not much else known about Mary Magdalene. Unlike other Apostles, she is not mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles. Her story is left unfinished, like many women of the bible. The Greek church says she died in Ephesus. In France, the tradition is that she lived there for 30 years, evangelized Provence, lived as a hermitess, and then died in Aix. 

So how did she get to be known as a prostitute? It all has to do with Pope Gregory I (aka Gregory the Great). Although the idea had been around since Ephraim the Syrian, a homily given by Gregory in 591 sealed the deal. He said the seven demons cast out of Mary were clearly sins, that the perfume she used to clean the feet of Jesus had not been bought specifically for him, but had been used to adorn herself in order to participate in sins of the flesh. Her story was confused with that of Mary of Egypt, who was a hermitess and repentant prostitute. Many writers, however, considered Mary Magdalene to be a prostitute, up until the 1990s. Many still teach that she was one. All because of a single homily in 591. 

The Roman Missal and Calendar were revised in 1969 and neither mention Mary Magdalene as repentant sinner, so some changes have been made. 

Her feast day is July 22. She is the patroness of apothecaries, women, perfumers, pharmacists, hairdressers, and tanners.