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Jan 7, 2020

10 Catholic Nuns Who Changed the World

Melissa Keating

If the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church, then the prayers of her nuns are the sunlight she needs to grow. 

The women in the post are technically both nuns and religious sisters. All lived lives radically devoted to God and managed to balance missionary zeal with deep lives of prayer. They also met the challenges of their times with confidence, assured that they could do anything through God. They shared in the words of one of my favorite nuns: “Dear Lord, do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.”

These women are only a small sample of all the religious sisters and nuns who have made our world a holier and better place. All you holy women, pray for us!

1. St. Amma Syncletica (316-400)

Feast Day: January 5

Syncletica is one of the Desert Mothers, or Ammas. She was a renowned Alexandran beauty who wanted to live a life completely dedicated to God. After her parents died, she gave all her possessions to the poor and began her life as a hermitess, following the example of St. Anthony of the Desert.

At least, that was her plan. Religious orders as we know them didn’t exist yet, so holy women began to flock to her, hoping for spiritual counsel. Syncletica possessed the gifts of discernment and healing. She put them to use counseling a generation of Christian women, many of whom began to live in hermitages near her.

Syncletica understood that many women weren’t ready for her life of extreme poverty. She still helped them and gave them advice on finding spiritual guides when they returned home. 

Her wisdom led to her being revered in her time. Some of her teachings were included in the famous book Sayings of the Desert Fathers, which has informed the Christian faithful for ages. Her way of life also helped create religious life as we know it today.

St. Genviève (422-500)

Feast Day: Jan 3

St. Genviève dedicated her life to God at the age of seven after hearing St. Germanus d’Auxerre preach. He singled her out of the crowd and prophesied her future holiness. After speaking with Genviève and her parents, he took her to the village church and consecrated her as a virgin. Her parents died when she was fifteen, prompting her to move to Paris to officially become a nun.

Genviève was an absolutely remarkable woman. She could read souls and had frequent visions and mystical experiences. People were afraid of her gifts and made at least one attempt on her life. St. Germanus defended her until the attacks stopped.

Her prayers and prophecies saved Paris several times, which is why she’s the patron saint of the city. When Paris was occupied, she snuck past soldiers to bring in boatloads of food and even negotiated for the release of French captives. In 451, she had a prophecy of Attila and his Huns that led her to start a prayer campaign. Atilla ultimately bypassed Paris and went South to Orleans. Her intercession is also credited with saving Paris from an epidemic in 1129.

Despite all she did for her city, Genviève’s relics were burned and mostly destroyed during the French Revolution.

3. St. Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179)

Feast day: September 17

Hildegard was born a sickly child of wealthy parents in Germany. She began to have mystical visions at an early age, around the time her parents brought her to the hermitess St. Jutta. Jutta raised Hildegard. By the time Hildegard was grown, a community had developed around Jutta. Hildegard joined the community and became its prioress upon Jutta’s death in 1136. 

Hildegard’s mysticism and supernatural gifts were not concealed in the convent. She shared them with her spiritual director, who recorded them. They were later approved by Pope Eugene II and St. Bernard of Clairvaux.

Hildegard counseled kings, bishops, princes, and members of religious orders. Faithful from across Europe traveled to speak with her. It’s not hard to see why—her work is simply beautiful. It clearly comes from a soul in an intimate union with God. Her music is famous to this day. 

She was more than just a poet, musician, scientist, scholar, and mystic, though. She also had chutzpah. She challenged followers of the Catharisme heresy and even confronted Emperor Rederick Barbosa for his support of antipopes. 

Pope Benedict XVI canonized Hildegard in 2012. She is one of the four female doctors of the Church.

4. St. Birgitta of Sweden (1303-1373)

Feast day: July 23

Birgitta was born to noble Swedish parents. They raised her piously until her mother’s death when Birgitta was twelve. 

Like Hildegard, she had her first visions at an early age. She was especially devoted to Christ’s passion. Unlike Hildegard, she didn’t enter religious life right away. She was married at the age of eighteen to a Swedish prince. They were married for twenty-eight years and had eight children, one of whom is now known as St. Catherine of Sweden.

Birgitta served as a lady-in-waiting to her queen until the death of her youngest child. She and her husband responded to that tragedy by making a pilgrimage to the Shrine of Olaf the Fat in Trondhjem, Norway. After the pilgrimage, she left the royal court. She and her husband took a mutual vow of chastity. He died in a Cistercian monastery in 1344.

Birgitta spent the next four years at the monastery experiencing visions and revelations and developing her interior life. After that, her public ministry began. It included:

  • founding a new religious order, the Order of the Most Holy Trinity (Brigettines)

  • denouncing people in high places for scandalous behavior (including her king and queen for being frivolous, her own son for developing a romance with the married queen of Naples, and her king again for disguising a marauding expedition as a crusade) 

  • becoming famous for her visions and prophecies

  • demanding the popes end the Avignon papacy.

Birgitta was unsuccessful with that last one, although she did get Urban VI to come to Rome briefly. She also pleaded with his successor, Gregory XI,  to return, but she died three years before St. Catherine of Siena convinced him to come home to Rome.

5. St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582)

Feast Day: October 15

Unlike the other sisters in this post, Teresa was not a zealous or mystic as a child. She entered the Carmelites at age twenty, but chose a convent with a lax approach and a worldly social life. Her spiritual progress over the next twenty years could best be described as glacial and irregular. 

That changed in 1555, when she was converted while praying in front of a statue of the scourged Christ. Our Lord began to give her visions and intimate communication with him. She had a period of anguish while she tried to adjust to her sudden mysticism, but fortunately St. Peter of Alcántara and St. Francis Borgia guided her.

Teresa began to reform the Carmelites in 1558. There was immediate opposition, but Pope Pius IV gave her permission to open a reformed Carmelite convent dedicated to prayer, penance, and work. She went on to found an additional sixteen convents. After meeting her fellow Carmelite St. John of the Cross, she helped him found a reformed monastery for men.

Teresa’s spirituality is magnificent, occupying a unique intersection of mysticism, humor, and practicality. Only she could pen this beautiful prayer and also have quotes like “I could be bribed with a sardine” attributed to her. 

Her writings include such spiritual classics as her Autobiography, The Way of Perfection, and the Interior Castle. Teresa was a declared a doctor of the Church in 1970 by Pope Paul VI,

6. St. Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897)

Feast day: October 1

Thérèse was a nobody from nowhere. She came from an undistinguished family in an unremarkable town. She lived a sheltered life, received a limited education, and entered the Carmelites as a teenager. She died of tuberculosis when she was twenty-four.

Yet from the moment her death was announced, people across the world have claimed her as their spiritual mother. Her autobiography, Story of a Soul, is one of the most-read spiritual memoirs of all time. Lisieux has a basilica in her honor. She was declared a doctor of the Church in 1997 by Pope St. John Paul II. 

All of this came from her simple message: Our vocation is to love. Anyone can be a saint. This news is revolutionary because it means it’s OK if we aren’t all great saints like St. Teresa of Avila or Genviève. Each of us must become a saint in our own little way. 

7. St. Mary Mackillop (1842-1909)

Feast day: August 8

Mary Mackillop was born to Scottish parents in Fitzroy, Australia as the eldest of eight children. Her father had left seminary just before ordination and made sure all his children were educated in their faith. He had less success with gainful employment, and the family often had to live off the money the children could earn.

Mary began working at age fourteen, primarily in education. She met Fr. Julian Woods while teaching poor children. He was worried about the lack of education available in Southern Australia. 

In 1867, Mary and Fr. Woods founded the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart, the first order founded by an Australian. Their special mission was to staff orphanages and schools, especially schools for the poor. 

Mary had every reason to become disillusioned with the Church. Fr. Woods became unreliable and had to be relieved of his responsibilities to the order. Her bishop excommunicated her for disobedience, then removed the excommunication a year later and apologized. Despite this, Marry’s zeal never flagged. 

She was the apostle to Australia. At the time of her death, there were more than six hundred sisters living across Australia and New Zealand. They ran twelve charitable institutions and 117 schools. 

Mary Mackillop became the first Australian saint on Jan 19, 1995.

8. St. Frances Xavier Cabrini (1850-1917)

Feast Day: November 13

Frances Xavier Cabrini was one of the most active missionaries in the history of the Church. She was also the first U.S. citizen to become a saint. 

She was born the youngest of thirteen children in Lombardy, Italy. When she was thirteen, she heard a traveling missionary speak about the Chinese mission, which sparked her dream of being a missionary. 

She tried to enter two convents but was refused due to her ill health. She was finally allowed to join a very unpleasant order running an orphanage when she was twenty-four. When the bishop had to shut down the orphanage six years later, he asked Frances to start a new order for female missionaries.

Frances founded the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart in an abandoned Franciscan monastery. She took her past experience as a lesson in how not to run an order and soon earned a reputation for being as full of love for the sisters as she was zeal for the mission. 

She hoped her sisters would be sent to China. Instead, Pope Leo XII asked her to serve the Italian immigrants in New York. Upon her arrival, the archbishop of New York tried to send her back due to a lack of facilities. She responded by opening a school and an orphanage, then returning to Italy when she ran out of nuns for her projects. 

Frances Cabrini opened schools, orphanages, and hospitals across the American continents, all while maintaining a peaceful interior life.

“We must pray without tiring, for the salvation of mankind does not depend upon material success … but upon Jesus alone,” she said. 

9. St. Edith Stein (1891-1942)

Feast day: August 9

Edith was born in Breslau, Germany to a devout Jewish family. Despite this, she was an atheist by the time she was thirteen.

She was absolutely brilliant. Little Edith was actually kicked out of kindergarten for being too clever! In the University of Göttingen, she studied philosophy, specifically phenomenology, and soon developed a reputation as one of the brightest emerging philosophers in Europe. Her studies led her to the Catholic faith. Upon discovering Teresa of Avila’s Autobiography, she read the whole book in a single night. The next day she bought a Catechism. She was baptized on Jan 1, 1922.

Soon after becoming Catholic, she wanted to enter a Carmelite convent but waited out of respect for her mother. She used the next twelve years to write and go on a lecture circuit until Hitler’s rise to power put an end to her academic career. She entered Carmel in 1934.

For four short years, Edith (now Teresa Benedicta of the Cross) was able to live the life of a simple Carmelite nun. She did domestic chores badly but willingly and was permitted to continue writing. Her correspondence converted several friends and former students. 

As life worsened under the Nazis, Edith prayed for the sufferings of the Jewish people. When it was no longer safe for her in Germany, a doctor smuggled her to a Carmelite convent in Holland. Her sister joined her two years later.

In 1942, in response to Catholic protests against the Nazis, all Jewish members of Dutch religious orders were arrested and taken to concentration camps. Edith and her sister were sent to Auschwitz, where they died in a gas chamber on August 9. 

Edith’s writings have been published and read since the war. Pope John Paul II canonized her in 1988, and her popularity has grown ever since. She is co-patroness of Europe with Birgitta of Sweden and Catherine of Siena.

10. St. Mother Teresa (1910-1997)

Feast day: September 5

Born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu in modern-day Macedonia, Mother Teresa was raised Catholic but did not think she had a religious vocation until her late teens. She entered the Loretto sisters when was eighteen. 

The sisters sent her to India where she worked in a girl’s school for twenty years. In 1946, she was on a train to Darjeeling when she received her famous “call within a call”: The Lord asked her to serve the poorest of the poor in Kolkata, and lead others to do the same.

She founded the Missionaries of Charity; set up orphanages, homes for the dying, shelters and leper colonies; and inspired the world. She also insisted her sisters maintain a deep spiritual life and a schedule saturated with prayer. 

The world noticed. She won the Noble Peace prize in 1979. She was a symbol of humility, faith, and simplicity to an increasingly cynical and complicated world. 

After her death, there was an immediate worldwide movement to have her declared a saint. Her investigation for a cause was one of the shortest in the history of the Church. Pope Francis canonized her in 2016.


You May Also Like:

We Need This Prayer from the Sisters of Life

Mary and the Saints, Our Powerful Intercessors

The Humanity of the Saints Explored


Melissa Keating is a writer, editor, and content strategist based in St. Louis. She has been writing weird things that Catholics seem to like since her freshman year at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, where she graduated with degrees in communications and foreign languages in 2012. Melissa then took her oddball talents to the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), where she helped found the Digital Campus. She has worked on award-winning multi-media stories for the Archdiocese of Denver and contributed to The Catholic Hipster Handbook before moving back home to St. Louis, where she helped parishes start support groups for the bereaved and the divorced and separated. 


Featured image from skitterphoto.com

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