Most of the nun-saints written up in this column have had straightforward careers, whatever their setbacks: a pious youth, an early entrance into the convent, a conscientious observance of the holy rule, and a reputation for prayerfulness, good works and mystical favors. Sister Hyacintha Mariscotti, on the other hand, started off as an unlikely vocation. Only gradually did she come around and make up for lost time.
Clarice Mariscotti was the daughter of a noble couple, Marcantonio and Ottavia Orsini Mariscotti. Born in Vignanello, some 50 miles north of Rome, she was educated in the Franciscan convent at nearby Viterbo. An older sister was a nun there, but Clarice showed little patience with pieties, and even her preservation from death at 17 little touched her heart. She looked forward rather to marriage. At age 20 she picked young Marquis Cassizucchi as her choice, but her parents gave him instead to her younger sister. Clarice became downright furious.
According to the then-current (and unwise) policy, she now, as a spinster daughter, was expected to enter the convent. She did receive the veil of the Franciscan order at her school-convent in Viterbo, taking the name Hyacintha (Giacinta). But she warned her father that she intended to live there with all the worldly comforts that she felt entitled to as a noblewoman. She therefore demanded that he furnish her cell elegantly. She wore a habit of the finest fabric, had her own kitchen, and both received guests and went calling at pleasure. While she attended devotions regularly and did not offend against her vow of chastity, her disregard of the Franciscan spirit of obedience, and especially poverty, caused grave scandal in that convent for ten long years.
At length, however, when Sister Hyacintha came down with a slight illness, her Franciscan confessor, visiting her cell, pointed out the inappropriateness of its furnishings. That gave her pause, but no complete healing. Later on, however, during the course of a really serious illness, she experienced a genuine change of heart, and made a public confession of her faults before the whole community of sisters.
From that time on Gacinta was a different woman, a true Franciscan. She discarded her costly habit for an old, used one; she went barefoot; she practiced self-denial rigorously, frequently fasting on bread and water; she intensified her personal devotion to the child Jesus, to the passion of Christ, to the Holy Eucharist, and to the Blessed Mother. Deeply contemplative, she even received miraculous gifts. Towards the needy she showed courageous charity, nursing the plague-ridden, and establishing two lay confraternities to attend to the needs of the needy, especially the homeless, those in jail, and impoverished nobles who were too proud to beg. For all these she herself would beg from door to door. Good deeds of this sort deserved high praise, but she now rejected any commendation, considering herself the unworthiest of mortals.
Despite her almost extreme piety, the reformed Giacinta was noted for her common sense. She might deny herself even necessary food and sleep, but she showed great balance in guiding the novice sisters along prudent lines. Asked once what she thought of a certain nun reputed for union with God, she replied, “First of all I should like to know how far she is detached from creatures, humble and free from self-will, even in good and holy things…. The sort of people who most appeal to me are those who are despised, who are devoid of selflove and who have little sensible (spiritual) consolation…. The cross, to suffer, to persevere bravely in spite of the lack of all sweetness and relish in prayer: This is the true sign of the spirit of God.” How completely Franciscan was that statement!
St. Hyacintha died at 55 in 1640. When she was canonized in 1807, the papal document said that “through her apostolate of charity she won more souls to God than many preachers of her time.” When we see a willful, self-indulgent person somersault into utter selflessness, we are surely witnessing the grace of God powerfully at work. Though she achieved this turnabout three centuries ago, St. Hyacintha is still a parable for our self-centered times. Are we weighted down by worldly possessions, pleasures, a rebellious spirit, sinful addictions? Giacinta’s example, however belated in her own life, reminds us that with God all things are possible, even joyous liberation from our worst enslavements.
–Father Robert F. McNamara