More often than not, the women saints that the Church venerates have been cloistered virgins. Blessed Mary of Pisa also founded a religious order, but like St. Elizabeth Seton, she did so as a widow. Unlike our American saint, she had been married twice and borne many children.
Catherine Mancini belonged to a distinguished family in Pisa, Italy, in the days when the great Italian cities were engaged in civil war against each other. The story is told of her that when she was only five, she had a sort of vision of the torturing of one Peter Gambacorta. He had been accused of political conspiracy and sentenced to be hanged. The legend says that the child, on experiencing the vision, prayed so hard for Peter that the rope by which he was being hanged broke, whereupon the judges commuted his death penalty. Our Lady then appeared to Catherine, the story continues, and told her to say seven Our Fathers and Hail Marys for Gambacorta every day, for he was going to become her benefactor in the years to come. He did just that, as we shall see.
Despite this early mystical experience, Catherine was married when she was twelve (not unusual in those days). She bore her husband two children. He died when she was only sixteen. Family pressure persuaded her to remarry. She bore her second husband five children. He died at the end of eight years of marriage, nursed by Catherine lovingly through his last illness. Her children all seem to have died young. Infant mortality was very high in those times.
The family wanted Catherine to take yet another husband. This time she refused. Instead, the young double-widow turned her house into a hospital. Here she took personal care of the patients. One time a sick stranger came to seek her aid. Nursing him demanded great self-control because of the condition of his disease, but she felt such sweetness in denying herself in favor of this patient that she really believed he was Christ himself come to test her devotion. At this time she was received as a member of the Third Order of the Dominicans. Soon she became acquainted with St. Catherine of Siena. A letter of St. Catherine’s remains, addressed to “Madame Catarina and Madame Orsola and the other women of Pisa.”
For all her married experience, Catherine remained a mystic at heart. Sometimes she would go into an ecstasy of prayer while walking along the street. Once when she paused in prayer, a mule knocked her down. (Prayer can be rather dangerous!)
Eventually Catherine entered a convent. It was the Dominican convent of Santa Croce at Pisa, which badly needed reform. She took over the task of making the nuns more devout. In that she succeeded. By now Sister Mary (that was the name she had taken when entering Santa Croce) aspired to live a still more austere devotional life. She and her companion, (Blessed) Clare Gambacorta, left to found another convent. The man who built this convent was Sister Clare’s father, the same Peter Gambacorta for whom Catherine Mancini had prayed daily since childhood! Her new convent won a widespread reputation for its holiness. Here Mary Mancini died on December 22, 1436.
Bl. Mary of Pisa is a good reminder that God can call to holiness whomever He chooses, no matter what their careers, unworldly or worldly, good or bad. You and I should be reassured by that.
–Father Robert F. McNamara