My hotel, Alma Domus, was next door to the Santuario di Santa Caterina and just up the street from the Basilica di San Domenico, I didn’t plan to be there, I didn’t even know they existed, but I was truly pleased to discover them.



P1040109St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380)

The Sanctuary of St. Catherine is the Benincasa home where Catherine Benincasa was born. “Born in 1347 in Siena, Italy she was the 25th of 26 children of Giacomo and Lapa di Benincasa.  Many of her siblings—including her twin, Giovanna, died at a few months old. Her father was a dyer of cloth; his business was on the ground floor of his great big house with his family and employees living upstairs.” (

P1030947Sanctuary – Home of Saint Catherine



P1040078Beginning as early as age six, she began having mystical experiences and made a vow of virginity at the age of twelve.

P1040077“When her older sister Bonaventura died in childbirth, the sixteen-year-old Catherine greatly upset her parents’ plans for her to marry Bonaventura’s widow by cutting off her hair and staging a massive fast. She had been sent by her parents to meet with a male cousin whom they greatly liked but, unbeknownst to her parents, he was sympathetic to Catherine’s desire to belong only to Jesus—it was he who urged her to cut off her hair as a sign of her love for Jesus for such an act would make her undesirable to male suitors in those days.” (

P1040076She chose to remain cloistered in her home, she practiced extreme fasting and a deep devotion to the Eucharist, her family resisted her chosen lifestyle, but she would not be dissuaded. She also took up the habit of giving away the family’s food and clothing and patiently bore their criticism.


As her mystical experiences continued, she became a Tertiary of the Order of St. Dominic which allowed her to be associated with a religious community but continue to live at home. When she was twenty, she had a mystical experience that she called her mystical marriage to Christ. Later, while visiting Pisa, while praying before a crucifix, she claimed to have received the stigmata, although no one could see it but her. (See altar piece near the beginning of this post) This experience changed her, the vision told her to go out into public life and help the poor and the sick. It was during the Great Plague of Europe, but without showing hesitation, she went into places where no one else would go. She cared for the sick with her bare hands, washing their wounds and burying them herself. She quickly attracted followers who helped her serve the sick and the poor, these people became her “family”.

P1040071“They love their neighbors with the same love with which they love me.” Dialogue 60

P1040073“The soul cannot live without love. She always wants to love something because love is the stuff she is made of, and through love I created her.”  Dialogue 51

P1040075A woman she cared for who was stricken with cancer accused Catherine of living a “bad life”; she answered the charge by professing her innocence, but she was so upset she went in prayer to ask Jesus to help her prove her innocence. In response, Jesus showed her a crown of beautiful jewels and a crown of thorns, and asked her to choose between them. Catherine placed the crown of thorns upon her head. “Since Thou dost bid me choose,” she answered, “I choose to be like Thee, and to bear crosses and thorns for Thy love as Thou hast done for love of me.” (

At the beginning of her ministry, she could not read or write, so the Dominicans taught her some rudimentary skills, she wrote 375 letters, penned by her disciples through dictation, wrote the book “The Dialogue of Divine Providence” which transcribes conversations she had with Jesus. During her times of ecstasies, she dictated her “Orations” which were prayers dedicated to the Lord, the shortest but deepest in theological thought of her writing.

“In 1375 Catherine gained an international reputation by mediating the conflict between the papacy and the city of Florence, and then used her influence to advise kings and make political treaties. Catherine was influential in convincing the timid Pope Gregory XI to leave Avignon in France (where the popes had resided for many years) and return to Rome, freeing the Church from excessive French influence. This success was short-lived, however, for in 1378 Gregory died, and the Great Schism — a division of allegiance between two rival popes — developed. Catherine steadfastly supported Pope Urban VI, the properly-elected successor to Gregory, but the schism was not resolved for almost forty years.” (

“Catherine’s greatest gift, however, was in her ability to teach and preach the Faith and her love of the Eucharist.  In Catherine’s day, it was very unusual to receive the Eucharist on a daily basis — one really had to have permission in order to do so and most times it was denied.  Catherine, however, received very many mystical graces in the Eucharist — so great was her profound love of Jesus in the Eucharist.  Visions and ecstasies often lasting 3-4 hours took place at Communion…many priests later attested to it.  In fact, her spiritual director/confessor, Fr. Raymond of Capua, tells the following of this powerful and holy woman in his biography of her:

“Pope Gregory XI…to content this longing of hers, published a Bull that granted her the right to have a priest at her disposal to absolve her and administer Communion to her and also to have a portable altar, so that she could hear Mass and receive Communion whenever and wherever she liked” (Capua, the Life of St. Catherine of Siena, p. 284).


“For the seven year period prior to her death, Saint Catherine of Siena took no food into her body other than the Eucharist. Her fasting did not affect her energy, however. She maintained a very active life during those seven years. As a matter of fact, most of her great accomplishments occurred during that period. Not only did her fasting not cause her to lose energy, but became a source of extraordinary strength, she becoming stronger in the afternoon, after having received our Lord in His Eucharist.” (

Her extreme fasting led to her illness that ended her life, her spiritual director ordered her to eat, but she said she it was too difficult to eat food. She died at the young age of 33, admired and respected by some of the most powerful people within the Church.

“In 1461 she was canonized by Pope Pius II, in 1939 Pope Pius XII proclaimed her Patroness of Italy together with St. Francis of Assisi and in 1970 Pope Paul VI declare her Doctor of the Church. Besides the “Dialogue” St. Catherine left 374 letters, many prayers and she was also fortunate in being the subject of two biographies written by two of her contemporaries. Her friend and confessor, Blessed Raymond of Capua wrote “The Major Life” and another Dominican, Thomas of Siena, wrote “The Minor Life”.’  (

“We are called to live out our Baptism to love others with the heart of Christ who himself said “Love one another as I have loved you” (Jn 13:34-35).  It is not enough to love others with a warm fuzzy kind of love but as He has loved us — that is, he loved us unconditionally and unto death. To love them is not just to have feelings for them.  Catherine and all of the great saints took this command of Christ to go forth and to do for others, often at the risk of their lives.  When Catherine volunteered at the local hospital to care for a woman named Tecca who was suffering from leprosy, Catherine’s mother Lapa had great concern that she, too, would catch the hideous disease.

Indeed, Catherine’s hands did develop leprosy but love for this woman (who often had an ungrateful heart for Catherine’s care) did not stop the virgin from caring for her.  When at last the woman died, Catherine herself washed and dressed the disease-ridden body, prepared it for burial, placed it tenderly in a casket, said the prayers and covered the casket with her own hands.  Whereupon, Catherine’s hands were miraculously cured and her hands appeared as more youthful than they had been.  Such is the love and faith in God that the great saints had.”

Read more of my friend, Cynthia Trainque’s, article here (


P1030945Outside the chapel is the courtyard, a bookstore and the crypt. These statues are in the courtyard.

It’s true what they say about nuns being very strict, the nuns shooed me out of the chapel in the Sanctuary twice, after that I was a little gun shy. They have a strict schedule, the public isn’t welcome during their prayer time and, like most churches in Italy, it close promptly at noon until 2:00.

P1030951Not far from the Sanctuary of St. Catherine is the Basilica of San Domenico; it is beautiful.  It was built in the 13th Century by the Dominican Order on Camporagio Hill, this view dominated my skyline and I walked the steep trail up to visit it often, this became my home church in Siena.

Basilica-di-San-Domenico-SienaThis street is right outside my hotel.



P1040081Going from the Sanctuary to the Basilica, Siena is in the hill country, everything is either up or down.


I somehow missed taking pictures of the interior of the basilica so I snagged some photos from the internet.


basilica san domenico 2Catherine and her family attended the Basilica even before it was complete; her father and other members of her family are buried there. This Basilica is closely associated with Catherine because she spent so much of her life here.

P1040082St. Dominic





P1040084Catherine of Siena conversing with Jesus

“It is the nature of love to love as much as we feel we are loved and to love whatever the one we love loves.” Letter T299

P1040098The crucifix Catherine was standing before when she received her stigmata.

P1040083The death of Catherine.

 “And you may be certain of this–unless you really are more ignorant than anyone–that the arm of holy Church, though it may well be weak, is not broken. From its weakness this arm always emerges strengthened, as do those who stay close to it.”  Letter T339.

P1040089Knowing how much it would have pleased the people of Siena to have had at least the remains of their great fellow citizen among them, her former spiritual director, Blessed Raymond of Capua, on October 13th, 1383, secretly sent the head of the Saint to Siena. The occasion to thus content the Sienese arose when the same Blessed Raymond wished to honor Catherine’ s corpse by transferring it inside the Basilica of Holy Mary above Minerve from the cemetery of the Friars adjacent to the church where it had been originally placed in a simple tomb not very tightly sealed and exposed to the elements.

Dampness caused by rainwaters began to consume the body very quickly. It was, therefore, quite easy to detach the head from the rest of the body without violence. There was no need to actually “decapitate” Catherine as some have mistakenly believed and written. By means of tests carried out at the base of the skull the lack of the first few cerebral vertebrae has been discovered: this discovery confirmed the above-mentioned dissolution of the softer nerves and tendons which had already begun to take place, thus facilitating the separation of the head from the trunk.

For more than six centuries Siena has jealousy kept watch over the sacred head of St. Catherine in the Basilica of St. Dominic. The Chapel where it has been placed is one of the most celebrated in the world thanks to the frescoes of Antonio Bazzi called “SODOMA”, who was a disciple of Leonardo da Vinci, the elegant marble altar built by Giovanni di Stefano and another oil fresco of Francesco Vanni.” (

P1040092Yes, this is the head of Catherine of Siena and this is a place frequented by locals and tourists alike, people bring their problems to Catherine and receive the same loving care she gave to her charges during the plague of the 14th Century.




P1040102St. Catherine’s thumb inside a reliquary

“The use of relics has some, although limited, basis in sacred Scripture. In 2 Kings 2:9-14, the prophet Elisha picked up the mantle of Elijah after Elijah had been taken up to heaven in a whirlwind. With it, Elisha struck the water of the Jordan, which then parted so that he could cross. In another passage (13:20-21), some people hurriedly bury a dead man in the grave of Elisha, “but when the man came in contact with the bones of Elisha, he came back to life and rose to his feet.” In the Acts of the Apostles we read, “Meanwhile, God worked extraordinary miracles at the hands of Paul. When handkerchiefs or cloths which had touched his skin were applied to the sick, their diseases were cured and evil spirits departed from them” (19:11-12). In these three passages, a reverence was given to the actual body or clothing of these very holy people who were indeed God’s chosen instruments—Elijah, Elisha and St. Paul. Indeed, miracles were connected with these “relics”—not that some magical power existed in them, but just as God’s work was done through the lives of these holy men, so did His work continue after their deaths. Likewise, just as people were drawn closer to God through the lives of these holy men, so did they (even if through their remains) inspire others to draw closer even after their deaths. This perspective provides the Church’s understanding of relics.

The veneration of relics of the saints is found in the early history of the Church. A letter written by the faithful of the Church in Smyrna in the year 156 provides an account of the death of St. Polycarp, their bishop, who was burned at the stake. The letter reads, “We took up the bones, which are more valuable than precious stones and finer than refined gold, and laid them in a suitable place, where the Lord will permit us to gather ourselves together as we are able, in gladness and joy, and celebrate the birthday of his martyrdom.” Essentially, the relics—the bones and other remains of St. Polycarp—were buried and the tomb itself was the “reliquary.” Other accounts attest that the faithful visited the burial places of the saints and miracles occurred. Moreover, at this time we see the development of “feast days” marking the death of the saint, the celebration of Mass at the burial place and a veneration of the remains.

After the legalization of the Church in 312, the tombs of saints were opened and the actual relics were venerated by the faithful. A bone or other bodily part was placed in a reliquary—a box, locket and later a glass case—for veneration. This practice especially grew in the Eastern Church, while the practice of touching cloth to the remains of the saint was more common in the west. By the time of the Merovingian and Carolingian periods of the Middle Ages, the use of reliquaries was common throughout the whole Church.

The Church strived to keep the use of relics in perspective. In his Letter to Riparius, St. Jerome (d. 420) wrote in defense of relics: “We do not worship, we do not adore, for fear that we should bow down to the creature rather than to the Creator, but we venerate the relics of the martyrs in order the better to adore Him whose martyrs they are.”” (


P1040100St. Catherine quotes:

There are more tears shed over answered prayers than over unanswered prayers.

Out of darkness is born the light.

All the way to heaven is heaven, because Jesus said, “I am the way.”

In your nature, eternal Godhead, I shall come to know my nature. And what is my nature, boundless Love? It is fire, because you are nothing but a fire of love. And you have given humankind a share in this nature for by the fire of love you created us.”

“This is why you have seen God in his last judgment permitting the Church to suffer so many persecutions and trials. But take heart…and don’t be afraid, no matter what has happened or may yet happen. God is doing it to make the Church perfect once again, so that lambs may feed in this garden instead of the wolves who are devouring the honor that belongs to God by stealing it for themselves. Take heart in Christ gentle Jesus, for I trust that his help, the fullness of divine grace, will come soon to your support and aid. If you do as I’ve told you, you will emerge from war into the greatest peace, from persecution to complete unity–not by human power but by holy virtue–and you will defeat the devils we can see (evil people) as well as those we cannot see–though they never take their eyes off us.”

“You know…that to join two things together there must be nothing between them or there cannot be a perfect fusion. Now realize that this is how God wants our soul to be, without any selfish love of ourselves or of others in between, just as God loves us without anything in between.”  Letter T164















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