Bl. Columba of Rieti

(1467-1501)

Blessed Columba’s life was reminiscent of that of her favorite model, St. Catherine of Siena. Still, its events were uniquely her own.

When her parents, Signor and Signora Guadagnoli of Rieti, Italy, took their daughter to the baptismal font in 1467, they had her baptized “Angiolella”. It was a lilting name that means “Little Angel”. But during the baptismal ceremony a dove suddenly appeared, and even rested on the infant’s head. As a result, throughout her life nobody called her other than “Columba,” which means “dove”.

From childhood, Columba was different from the average young person. Learning early about St. Catherine of Siena from the Dominican nuns who taught her, she dedicated herself to God at the age of ten. A few years later, when her parents proposed that she marry, she answered that her only spouse would be Jesus. Thereafter, Columba cut off contacts with the world to the best of her ability, and, living at home, devoted herself to prayer and acts of self-denial. In return, despite her youth, she received many extraordinary spiritual graces.

Catherine of Siena had not been a nun, but a lay tertiary of the Dominican Order. Columba, too, joined the Dominican lay tertiaries when 19. This was the signal, not of intensifying her own cloistral life, but of beginning, as St. Catherine had, a life of public service. Not long afterward, for instance, her prayers were requested for a citizen of Rieti who had been sentenced to death for murder. Columba visited the man in prison, talked him into repenting his crime, and then foretold that he would not be executed. When a reprieve came at the eleventh hour, Columba’s reputation as a prophet was much enhanced. But she became noted for other gifts as well. She ate almost no food; she cured a person at Viterbo who was possessed by the devil; and she was granted on various occasions the power of miracles. The enthusiastic people of Narni even tried to kidnap her so that she could stay among them. Fortunately, she managed to escape their devout plot. (Saints do have their problems!)

Actually, Columba was to spend most of her life not in Rieti but in Perugia. How she happened to move was in itself a remarkable instance of God’s special providence.

One day it was revealed to her that she was to leave Rieti for a place the revelation did not mention. Putting on secular garb, she set out on the highway, like Abraham, trusting that God would be her guide. At Foligno she was arrested as a fugitive that the police were in search of. When the police got in touch with her family, her father, her brother, and an elderly matron of Rieti came to Foligno and identified her. Then the trio joined her in her mysterious journey. It ended in Perugia, not far from Assisi, and she accepted the transfer. Her reputation as a mystic had evidently preceded her, for she found there a group of Dominican lay tertiaries who shared her own views. On January 1, 1490, she and several of these took vows as a religious community of Dominican tertiary nuns.

Some of the Perugians were slow to accept Sister Columba’s alleged holiness. One prudent priest said, “Wait for ten years, and then if her conduct has not belied her reputation, we can reckon her as a saint.” Most people, however, had no doubts that they had a saint among them, and their hunch proved correct. A few years later when plague struck Perugia, the city fathers turned to her for her advice. She healed many of the stricken by her touch. She also offered herself to God as a victim for the cessation of the pestilence. As a result, she herself caught the disease when the general epidemic had ceased. Having eventually recovered, Columba attributed her cure to the prayers of St. Catherine of Siena.

Even Pope Alexander VI, Borgia, surely not the most saintly of popes, held Columba in high regard. On the other hand, Lucrezia Borgia is said to have hated this holy woman. It was through Lucrezia’s influence, perhaps, that a decree was issued in Rome that launched a persecution of the nun. Accused of practicing magic and even deprived of her father confessor, she bore the attacks most patiently until they ended. During her last years she also accepted with great patience many physical ailments.

Throughout her years in Perugia, Sister Columba Guadagnoli remained vitally interested in the welfare of her adopted city. When she died at 34, the city fathers paid all costs of a great public funeral. Since then, this remarkable woman has been venerated by Perugia as its heavenly patron.

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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