Catherine of Genoa was both a mystic and a heroic woman who spent a good deal of her life caring for the poor and sick. She established a tradition that was embraced by members of lay movements of the time, including the Oratories of Divine Love and the Theatines. Catherine was the youngest of five children born into the powerful and aristocratic Fieschi family in the northern Italian city of Genoa in the region of Liguria. Her father, Jacopo Fieschi, was Viceroy of Naples and his family was the most powerful of the Guelph families of Genoa. He was a descendant of Roberto Fieschi, the brother of Pope Innocent IV. Her mother, Francesca di Negro, also belonged to an ancient, aristocratic family of Genoa.
As a pious young girl of thirteen, Catherine desired to enter an Augustinian convent, but was denied entrance because of her age. In 1463, two years after the death of her father, her brother Giacomo married her off to the aristocrat Giuliano Adorno for political and financial motives. Catherine was only sixteen years of age. Since Giuliano’s family was Ghibelline, the marriage was an attempt to reconcile the two families divided by politics. Giuliano proved to be unfaithful, frequently absent from home, and a spendthrift. He gambled and squandered not only his own finances but Catherine’s as well, and fathered an illegitimate child with his mistress. Catherine was extremely miserable, spending the first five years of her marriage in isolation and loneliness. During the next five years, she made an attempt to return to the social life of Genoa, spending her time in various amusements. But she again plunged into a depression and in 1473 sought help from a priest-confessor at the convent where her sister, Limbania, was a nun. While about to make her confession, Catherine experienced a sudden and overwhelming love of God that subsequently caused her radical conversion and determination to live a life of devotion.
Although a married laywoman, Catherine’s life underwent profound changes as she entered into a period of intense personal penance and prayer.