Margaret was a native of Laviano, in the present province of Tuscany, Italy. Her father was a farmer. Her mother died when she was seven. The stepmother she acquired when she was nine was a harsh guardian of this lively and affectionate stepdaughter.
As a pretty and unloved teenager, Margaret fell easy prey to a well-to-do young nobleman named Arsenio. Apparently promising an eventual marriage, he sweet-talked her into eloping to his castle. Margaret bore him a son, but he brushed off her requests that they marry. The people of his city, Montepulciano, shook their heads over the affair, and put the worst interpretation upon it. Margaret accepted and enjoyed the splendors of her position, but from time to time she grieved over the sinful irregularity of her life.
Then one day in 1274, after the couple had been living together for nine years, Arsenio rode out to inspect his properties. He never returned; but his dog did. The dog led Margaret to a spot in the woods, where he dug up for her the body of the nobleman. Arsenio had been assassinated, and his body thrown into a hole and covered with leaves.
This frightful experience shocked Margaret into an irreversible conversion. She gave to Arsenio’s family all his property, and taking her son went back to her father to beg his forgiveness. When the father refused, on the advice of his second wife, Margaret, distraught and fearing her own weakness, fled to Cortona to ask the help of the Franciscan friars. Two good women of that city took in her and her son and introduced them to the Franciscans.
Under the guidance of the friars, especially Fra Giunta Bevegnati, Margaret began a period of life as a penitent that was to last twenty-nine years. The first part of her road back was the most difficult, for although she was not exactly the abandoned sinner that she now called herself, she still had much to learn about control of her impulses. Subsequently, she devoted herself to the care of the poor. She brought about the foundation of a hospital at Cortona, and formed a congregation of Franciscan tertiaries to serve as nurses. She likewise set up a Confraternity of Our Lady of Mercy, to enlist financial support for the hospital. Her son eventually became a Franciscan priest.
Despite many trials, Margaret, from the time she joined the third order of St. Francis, advanced mightily in spirituality. God often spoke with her. Their conversations were not for her benefit alone, but for others. On more than one occasion she was told to intervene with the bellicose Bishop William of Arezzo so that he might come to terms with his opponents. Eventually Jesus gave her a mission. As a penitent, she was to call others to repentance. Margaret set about this apostolate with zeal, and had great success in making peace between antagonists, reconciling sinners, and bringing the lax back to the sacraments. Moral miracles were accompanied by physical miracles. By the time of her death, hardened sinners from not only Italy but France and Spain were seeking her help.
On the day of her death, Margaret was acclaimed as a saint, and the people of Cortona began to build a church in her honor. For her shrine, Giovanni Pisano, the noted sculptor, carved a statue of the saint and the dog that had led her to her lover’s grave – the shattering discovery that had changed her life.
In our own day, all too many men and women are living and begetting as husband and wife without commitment to marriage. Like Arsenio and Margaret, their sense of sin and mutual respect has become strangely dulled.
May God send to such as these a messenger like the faithful dog. They were called to better things!
–Father Robert F. McNamara