Catherine of Siena was a remarkable woman who was not only a mystic and a theologian, but a spiritual counselor, a caretaker to the sick and poor, and an energetic advocate for peace, justice, and Church unity. She was born in 1347 in Siena, an Italian town not far from Florence in the region of Tuscany. She was the twenty-fourth of twenty-five children born to Giacomo Benincasa and Lapa Piagenti. Her twin sister died in infancy. Even from an early age, Catherine was attracted to a life of devotion and piety. When she was around seven years of age, she experienced a vision of Christ and subsequently vowed her chastity to him. At the age of fifteen, as the result of her parents’ insistence that she marry, she cut off her hair in protest. She endured persecution from her family until her father, eventually convinced of her genuine piety, ordered that a small room on top of the house be given to her for her own prayerful meditation.
In 1365, at the age of eighteen, she joined the Mantellate, a group of Third Order Dominican women, most of them elderly widows dedicated to prayer, penitential acts, and service to the sick and poor. After joining the Mantellate, Catherine remained in her father’s house in solitude, devoting herself to prayer and the practice of strict austerities. Although she never received a formal education, it was perhaps during this period that, by engaging a friend to teach her, she learned to read, at least enough to understand liturgical texts. Whether or not she ever learned to write many years later is conjectural. In 1368, at the age of twenty-one, she experienced a “mystical marriage” to Christ and consequently left her solitude to serve others through offering both physical care of the sick and poor and spiritual assistance. Catherine soon acquired a growing group of devotees and disciples whom she called her famiglia. This group, who referred to her as “mamma,” was made up of men and women, both priests (Dominicans naturally predominated) and laypeople, many of them more advanced in age than Catherine but all in some way her spiritual pupils.