For my father and my mother have abandoned me: but the Lord hath taken me up.
—Psalm 26 (27):10
Following the death of Margaret della Metola in 1320, every step taken by the Roman Catholic Church to investigate her sanctity has been done quietly and on the cheap. Mother Church’s reticence in this regard over the past 700 years seems quite perplexing.
Margaret was born in 1287 within the Metola Castle near Mercatel in Perugia. Severe curvature of her spine gave her a hunchback. One leg was one and a half inches shorter than the other, and she was totally blind. Her parents, Parisio and Emilia Metola, were lesser members of a ducal family in Italy. Parisio led the castle garrison.
Ashamed of their deformed daughter — her father was sure the baby was supposed to be a boy but turned into a girl due to some spiritual failing — Margaret was kept in a secluded part of her parents’ castle. Her existence was known to the girl’s nurse, who named the baby Margaret, and a priest, the castle’s chaplain, who baptized her.
At the age of 6, Margaret slipped away from the nurse during a party her parents hosted but was caught before guests caught sight of her. Parisio had the stonemason build a vault on one side of the castle’s chapel with only two windows. One was for food to come in and removal of waste. The other was made into the wall of the church so she could hear Mass and be able to receive Holy Communion.
Little Margaret spent the next 9 ½ years walled up inside her cell with nothing other than a bench, some bedding and a few clothes. The castle’s chaplain complained bitterly at the parents’ rejection, but to no avail.
The priest’s heart went out to Margaret, and he took upon himself the duty to educate and catechize the girl. He gladly presented her with a walking stick when she got older to help her get around her room and was continually amazed at her docility, the great love she had for her parents, and the depth of her spiritual wisdom.
When Margaret was 16 years old, Parisio and Emilia heard of a shrine, the tomb of a holy Franciscan in Citta di Castello where miracles were taking place. The family made a pilgrimage. When, at the end of the week, there was no change, her parents callously abandoned the young woman. Returning home, they never saw Margaret again.
It was the most loving act of kindness Parisio and Emilia were ever to bestow on their daughter. Never interacting with her again, they left her to the mercy of strangers.
Know ye also that the Lord hath made his holy one wonderful: the Lord will hear me when I shall cry unto him. —Psalm 4:4
At first, Margaret slept in doorways or empty buildings. In The life of Margaret of Castello (Dublin, 1955) William R. Bonniwell writes, “Her cheerfulness, based on her trust in God’s love and goodness, was extraordinary … Margaret’s cheerfulness won the hearts of the poor of Castello. They took her into their homes for as long as their purses could afford. She passed from house to house in this way, a homeless beggar being practically adopted by the poor of a city.”
The mother superior of a local nunnery gave the teenager a home, but the nuns in residence had grown lax in prayer and spirituality. They came to detest Margaret’s intense faith, unquenchable cheerfulness, and burning devotion to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. Complaints were made, and Margaret was expelled from the convent, finding herself again being cared for by the impoverished of Citta-di-Castello.
“Cheerfulness” is a word seen frequently when researching Margaret’s life. Usually, it attracted people who might have been repelled by the sight of her dwarfed and misshapen body. Her cheerful smile mirrored her great faith and trust in the love of God.
Margaret’s situation changed for the better with the arrival of Dominican friars at Castello who formed a branch of the Third Order of Penance of St. Dominic for laypeople. The women members were called the Mantellata, after the full black cloaks they wore over the black and white Dominican habit without taking the vows of a nun. On the day of her profession, Margaret gained a miraculous knowledge of all 150 Psalms recited as part of the Daily Office.
Leaning on her staff as she and other Mantellata walked about town, Margaret became a familiar and beloved sight in Castello. She spent hours in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament but found time to open a small school for the children of the town, where she instructed them in the faith and tended to them when their parents went to work. She also comforted the sick and dying, bringing them food and praying with them.
Perhaps recalling her earlier years, Margaret took special care to visit prisoners, making a profound impression on one group when, entering ecstatic prayer, she was lifted two feet off the ground, her face radiant with joy. “If you only knew what was in my heart,” she often exclaimed.
During Margaret’s life, other miraculous events occurred, such as when she brought back to life a boy who had drowned and another boy who fell from a balcony. Through Margaret’s intercession, a man, mangled and killed by bears, was brought back to life and healed.
Blessed are the clean of heart: for they shall see God. —Matthew 5:8
Little Margaret went to confession daily, receiving Holy Communion as often as allowed. She confided to her confessor that, during Mass, she saw Christ Incarnate at the altar.
The priest wondered, “But how is that possible, when you are blind?”
“I do not know,” she answered. “Father, you have commanded me to reveal to you the innermost secrets of my heart. Since I am obliged to speak: from the Consecration until the Communion, I do not see the priest, the crucifix, the missal, or anything else. But I do see Christ our Lord.”
When the priest asked what Jesus looked like, Margaret exclaimed in dismay, “Oh, Father, you ask me to describe Infinite Beauty!”
She was only 33 when Margaret’s wasted body could no longer withstand disease. Cared for by other members of the Mantellata, ahe suffered greatly but without complaint. On April 13, 1320, Margaret herself recognized the approach of death with joyful tranquility, asking one of the Mantellata sisters to ask one of the Dominican friars to bring her the Last Sacraments.
The woman rushed out and the news flashed throughout Castello: “Little Margaret is dying!”
The doctor arrived as did other townspeople, with tears flowing, gathering to pray for their friend. “They recalled instances of her unfailing kindness, her invincible patience, her remarkable courage.”
Presently the sound of men’s voices was heard and grew ever louder. The Dominican friars came into sight. Chanting the Gradual Psalms, they processed as an escort for the prior bearing Jesus as Holy Viaticum to the dying young woman on her final journey.
A devout crowd attending Margaret’s Requiem Mass became agitated when her body was being processed out of the church to be buried in the cemetery. “She should be buried in the church!” they called out. The friars set down the bier on which her body lay, while the prior explained that Margaret had to be declared a saint before she could be buried in the church.
While the controversy continued, Margaret’s left arm raised from her side and rested on a disabled, mute girl who was instantaneously cured. Margaret’s body was interred in the church. From that day on, hundreds of miracles were attributed to Margaret’s intercession.
The Dominicans began a cause for her canonization, but it languished over the centuries. Interest in her cause was rekindled after the discovery of her incorrupt body in the 1500s. Pope Paul V officially recognized Margaret’s longstanding veneration. This allowed him to confer equivalent beatification for her on Oct. 19, 1609, and the Dominican order was allowed to celebrate Blessed Margaret’s feast day on April 13.
More than 400 years later, on April 24, 2021, Pope Francis decided another miracle was unnecessary for a declaration of sainthood. Without any fanfare, he proclaimed Blessed Margaret to be a saint in heaven through equipollent (equivalent) canonization. There was no canonization Mass at St. Peter's, but members of the Dominican order celebrated a Solemn Mass on Sept. 19, 2021, at the Church of St. Dominic, where her body remains, in Citta di Castello.
St. Margaret is the patron saint invoked for disabled people, handicapped people, people rejected by religious orders, children with disabilities, the blind and those with eye diseases, those living in poverty, and Right To Life groups.
Sean M. Wright, MA, a Master Catechist for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles is a parishioner at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Santa Clarita. An Emmy nominee, he answers comments at [email protected].