5 Catholic Women We Should Be Talking About More Often

by Leadership, March, Saints, Testimonies

First things first. When I embarked on the quest to find Catholic women, who are not saints or blesseds, I was prepared for surprises. Many of us know our holy and inspiring women saints (Saint Catherine of Sienna, Saint Rita, Saint Therese, Saint Edith Stein… I could go on and on), and some of us have heard of Dorothy Day and Sister Clare (if you have not, I’ve added some links). As much as I wanted to write about them, I felt there were many more Catholic women to discover who could teach us how to grow in holiness.

As I began my research, I quickly found that I was so right, even more so than I had expected!

I found dozens of stories of girls and women, religious and lay, mothers, wives, states-women, peace-builders, artists, intellectuals, writers, and community leaders. Women who have been generous to Jesus’ particular calling stood in the face of injustice with a humble but strong voice and searched for Beauty, Truth, and Goodness in ordinary and extraordinary ways. Women who are utterly imperfect and human, like you and me, and who made a radical choice to love God and others despite their flaws and mistakes. And of whom, surprisingly, Catholics do not talk about much. Choosing among these women was hard, and I urge you to keep looking for these stories (do not let me choose your favorites for you!). As you read this list, you will be inspired and filled with hope that God is working in hidden and mysterious ways across ages and places through each of His beloved daughters.

5 Catholic Women We Should Be Talking About More

1. Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret Anscombe

“What people are for is, we believe, like guided missiles, to home in on God, God who is the one truth it is infinitely worth knowing, the possession of which you could never get tired of, like the water which if you have you can never thirst again, because your thirst is slaked forever and always”.

Elizabeth is a figure with many layers. She was a great British philosopher known for being Wittgenstein’s (one of last Century’s greatest thinkers) student and literary executor. She converted to the Catholic faith in her youth. She got married, graduated from Oxford, and worked as a fellow in Cambridge. She soon became an important voice in the political realm of her time and did not hesitate to stand against war, violence, and abortion. Her academic success did not stop her from having a family of 7 children. She died surrounded by her loved ones at an old age.

Anscombe constantly defended women’s key roles in academia, the public sphere, and the family. She wrote dozens of books and articles on metaphysics, language, philosophy, ethics, politics, and religion. One of her colleagues recollects that they attended a philosophic discussion at Anscombe’s house a few days after she had given birth to one of her children. In a world that may oppose women taking their private lives into the public sphere, she took the public debate into her home.  I believe she is a model for Catholic women’s quest to balance life, family, and faith.

2. Immaculée Llibagiza

“Never refuse anyone who asks you for help; if your pockets are empty, give them hope. Your every action must be born of kindness, your every word spoken with love. Live as God would have you live, and others will be inspired to do the same.”

Immaculée is the only Catholic woman on my list still living and active. She was born in Rwanda in 1972 and survived the 1994 Genocide by hiding for 91 days in a bathroom with seven women. During the genocide, she lost her parents, two of her brothers, her friends, and her childhood home. She is now a US citizen, a public speaker, and a writer, sharing with the world how she experienced God’s love through the hardships of her youth and afterward through the rebuilding of her life. For Catholics and non-Catholics, she is a living testimony of peace and forgiveness as she tells the world again and again how she forgave her family’s killers. She encourages us that we can also forgive those who have hurt us with God’s grace.

She is a Mahatma Gandhi Reconciliation and Peace Award winner, is married with two children, and is a fervent devotee of Our Lady of Kibeho. She teaches us the power of prayer (particularly The Rosary, which was her consolation during those days of hiding), reconciliation, and forgiveness.

Read her story HERE.

3. Sigrid Undset

“Christ, you who were crucified! Now I have given up everything that could bind me. And I have placed myself in your hands, if you would find my life worthy enough to be freed from its servitude to Satan. Take me so that I may feel that I am your slave, for then I will possess you in return.”

To me, this woman has the most fascinating, tragic, and beautiful story. Sigrid was born in 1882 in Denmark but grew up in Oslo-Norway in a quite secular environment. Due to her father’s death, her family went through economic hardships, which meant she had to quit school and work as a secretary. However, she continued her education on the side, wrote novels, and first published when she was 25. Sigrid started writing on more polemical issues, such as women’s emancipation and the two world wars. Her personal life had several complications: she took in her husband’s children, she had a mentally handicapped daughter, and she went through a stormy divorce. These things made her question her agnostic beliefs and the meaning of life. In this way, she discovered the Christian God converted to Catholicism in 1924, and later became a lay Dominican. In 20th-century Norway, this event was scandalous (she was mocked and excluded as “The Catholic Lady”).

Undset donated her Literature Nobel Prize to the Finnish War effort when Stalin invaded Finland in 1940. She was forced to flee Norway because of her written opposition to the Nazi ideology in that same year (her books were actually banned). Later, she crossed the Soviet Union with her younger son and arrived as a political refugee in the United States. She died at 67 in Norway and was buried with her two children, who died during the war. This is a woman who faced a time of troubles and hopelessness with a cry for peace and a fearless belief in God’s providence.

4. Wangari Maathai

“Always follow a small voice that all of us have, a small voice that comes from deep within, a small voice that I have come to identify as the God in you. God whispers to you and if your heart is pure, you can hear it. Follow that voice. Be committed to it, be persistent with it, be patient with it.”

This Nobel Prize winner was born in a small Kenyan village in 1940. Maathai converted to Catholicism when she was in boarding school at the Mathari Catholic Mission in Nyeri, where she was protected from the ongoing violent conflicts in the region. She went on to a Catholic High School and received a scholarship to study in the United States. In the 1960s, she became involved in environmental protection. She returned to Kenya to advocate for this cause, where she realized the deep environmental degradation her childhood natural landscapes had suffered. While studying for her doctorate, she got married and had her first of three children.

Although I will not go on and on about all her achievements, awards, and political leadership (they are, of course, impressive), I will say  she was the first woman in East and Central Africa to become a Doctor of Philosophy, and she founded the Green Belt Movement, an international NGO that promotes reforestation and women’s rights. All of this before Laudato Si was even published! 

This woman truly did it all in politics, academia, and social and environmental justice movements, from the Red Cross to the UN. Despite all these goals, she struggled both in her professional and personal life (lost elections, got fired unjustly from the university, went through a hard divorce, lost fights trying to protect nature in Kenya, went to jail for defending democracy) and had all the reasons for giving up. She definitely had no problem making other people uncomfortable while fighting for truth and goodness.

In her book Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World she talks about how Christianity and indigenous religions are a source for environmental protection. Maathai inspires us today to create radical transformations in the world just as Jesus did, by believing in people as instruments for good.

5. Chiara Corbella

“In love one cannot be mediocre, nor can one sustain love without work. The choices in the past were not enough, and it was necessary to choose again. On the flight, before touching ground, we became aware of what we truly were: pilgrims reaching toward Heaven”.

Chiara is an example of welcoming God’s will with open arms. And, for her, that was a tough one. This Italian Catholic woman, wife, and mother battled cancer with a huge smile on her face.

Chiara met her husband on a pilgrimage to Medjugorje, and they married in 2008 in Assisi. Her first two pregnancies were medically complicated. She was encouraged to abort her children, which she refused. Both of her first children died shortly after they were born at birth.

Chiara and her husband Enrico became public pro-life advocates. They talked about how praying the Rosary and giving their lives to Mary was a great consolation for them through the suffering of losing their children. During her third pregnancy, she was diagnosed with a terminal carcinoma, which rapidly progressed to major organs. She decided to postpone her treatment and allow her son, Francesco, to be born in perfect health. After his birth, she started treating her illness with courage and trust in God. She died in 2012 at home wearing her wedding gown, and is now a Servant of God and on the road to being declared a Saint. Through her public speeches, writing, and family, her testimony is very much alive today.

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Image: Photo by Hugo Jones on Unsplash

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