Meet St. Eustochia

Pilgrim Center of Hope welcomed ladies of all ages to Afternoon Tea with St. Eustochia on Thursday, January 10, 2013 at 2pm. We enjoyed tea, sweets – including King Cake – and learned about a little-known saint, Eustochia Calafato. After reading about her, we discussed how her story impacted us. Discussion included: the importance of Scripture, determination, focus, fruitfulness in obedience, and knowing who we are in Christ. The event concluded with praying the Chaplet of Divine Mercy in Gethsemane Chapel at 3pm.

In compiling the pamphlet for this Tea, I had to search far and wide. (Thank the Lord for the Internet!) Most information on St. Eustochia is in Italian – I even had a priest friend from the Netherlands assist in translating Eustochia’s “Prayer Before a Crucifix” from Italian into English! Because Saint Eustochia is difficult for English-speakers to ‘meet’, I’d like to share her story with you:

St. Eustochia modeling in “Virgin of the Annunciation” by Antonello da Messina

Saint Eustochia Smeralda Calafato

Born March 25, 1434 in Santissima Annuziata, Italy
Died January 20, 1485 in Montevergine, Italy
Feast Day: January 20
Patron of: Messina, Sicily, Italy

In the fifteenth century, the Sicilian city of Messina, Italy was stricken with the plague. A young woman, pregnant with her fourth child, fled with her family to a nearby small town named after the Annunciation, Santissima Annuziata. She was blessed with the birth of a daughter on the Feast of the Annunciation, March 25, 1434 – also Good Friday that year. She named her Smeralda, meaning emerald.

Smeralda’s mother was a fervent Christian and enthusiastic admirer of the Franciscan religious order, particularly of the Franciscans who were reforming the order by closely following the life of St. Francis, embracing poverty. These reformed Franciscans’ first monastery was established by Blessed Matthew of Agrigento in Messina. He inspired a renewal of faith in the people of Messina by his ardent preaching and way of life.

Smeralda’s mother had attended one of Blessed Matthew’s sermons as an eighteen-year-old bride. It had such a profound impact on her that she devoted her life to prayer, penance and helping those in need. Thus, little Smeralda was raised from childhood to exercise Christian piety and virtue, eventually exceeding her mother’s greatest hopes and expectations. Smeralda was beautiful both inside and out; she is thought to be the model for the painting The Virgin of the Annunciation by Antonello da Messina (seen here).

One day in church, Smeralda had a powerful vision of Jesus Crucified. The experience compelled her to devote herself completely to the Lord. When Smeralda was fourteen years old, she wanted to become a Poor Clare nun.

However, the young girl’s desire to follow Christ would be tested. Her father had already arranged marriage for her to an older, wealthy widower. Smeralda kept her hope in religious life, and the widower died before the wedding. Her father again arranged a marriage for his daughter, but that man also died. With each new proposal, Smeralda remained firm about her desire to enter religious life. Then, on a usual business trip to Sardinia, Smeralda’s father died suddenly.

After this tragic death, Smeralda requested entrance to the convent of Santa Maria di Basico. But her brothers threatened to burn it down if she entered, so the frightened sisters could not accept her request. After several months, Smeralda’s brothers experienced a change of heart since they witnessed her intense desire to dedicate her life to Christ. She finally entered and took her vows at fifteen-and-a-half years old. She took the name Eustochia, meaning ‘fruitful.’

Unfortunately, Sister Eustochia came to discover that the convent had drifted away from the poverty lived by their foundress, St. Clare of Assisi. For more than a decade, Eustochia struggled to be an authentic Franciscan in the materialistic atmosphere. Eventually, she requested permission from Pope Calistus III to establish a new convent, and it was granted! The Holy Father worked with several nobles who bought a former hospital building to become the new convent.

But a sister does not so easily leave her community to establish a new one. Eustochia received resistance from many of her fellow nuns. Some friars refused to say Mass at the new convent, believing that the sisters’ lifestyle was too strict. Feeling abandoned by so many, Eustochia appealed directly to Church authorities in Rome. They approved of her desire to renew Franciscan asceticism and poverty, and gave their support. The friars who had refused to assist at the convent were threatened with excommunication if they continued to resist.

There are many testimonials to the heroic nature of the virtues practiced by Eustochia, and numerous miracles are recorded concerning the multiplication of food. It is said that on many occasions when the treasury of the convent was insufficient to buy provisions, Eustochia made the Sign of the Cross over two or three little pieces of bread, and there was miraculously enough to satisfy the appetites of the ten sisters who comprised the community.

Eustochia’s holiness drew many more to her community – so many that it soon outgrew the building and moved to Montevergine, near Messina, where their convent still stands. The local people considered Mother Eustochia their patron and protector, and the cloister was a place of refuge—especially during the earthquakes that rocked the area.

Mother Eustochia demonstrated to her nuns the fruits of asceticism, and lovingly infused into their hearts the virtues which she herself practiced with admirable constancy and heroism. She taught them to permeate their whole lives with a simple and generous Franciscan spirituality, focusing on their Beloved Suffering Christ, to devote themselves to the Eucharist, and to draw all necessary strength and nourishment for daily meditation from an intense, liturgical life. She often led the sisters in two-hour Scripture study sessions.

Eustochia’s love of Jesus in poverty and penance was outstanding. In fact, she bore for many years the stigmata – the wounds of Christ miraculously reproduced on her own body. She wrote a treatise on the Passion, which, unfortunately, is now lost. Though she never visited the Holy Land, Eustochia had a devotion to the holy places as did Saint Bridget of Sweden. In fact, Eustochia had one of the first sets of the Stations of the Cross (as we know them today) constructed within her convent.

Saint Eustochia's incorrupt body

Her incorrupt body, darkened by time

As she lay on her deathbed, Eustochia spoke to her daughters, who had gathered around her, about the Passion of Christ. On January 20, 1485, she spoke for an hour and, before closing her eyes, said, “Jesus. Jesus. Jesus.” Then, she passed away. There left behind a community that had grown to 50 sisters.

Eustochia’s tomb and body manifested extraordinary phenomena, and many people received powerful graces through her intercession. The sisters wrote a biography of their revered mother and founder. She was beatified on June 22, 1987 and canonized on June 11, 1988 by Blessed Pope John Paul II.

Her incorrupt body rests in the Sanctuary of Montevergine in Messina, the monastery which she established, and can be visited twice a week.

John Paul II said of her: “Learning assiduously in the school of Christ Crucified, she grew in knowledge of him and, meditating on the splendid mysteries of grace, she conceived a faithful love for him. For our saint, the cloistered life was not a mere flight from the world in order to take refuge in God. Through the severe criticism which she imposed upon herself, she certainly wanted to be united to Christ, gradually eliminating whatever in her, as in every human person, was fallen; at the same time, she felt united to all. From her cell in the monastery of Montevergine she extended her prayer and the value of her penances to the whole world. In such a way she wanted to be near to each brother and sister, alleviate every suffering, ask pardon for the sins of all.”

Perhaps her most dramatic intercession happened in 1615 when earthquakes were rocking Messina night & day. Eustochia’s sisters were asked by the city senate to request her intercession. They set her body upright in her old choir stall, and asked for her prayers. Suddenly, her lips opened and her voice was heard chanting the first verse of the Night Prayer Psalm! Her terrified sisters nevertheless joined her in prayer and bowed their heads as usual during the Gloria. At that moment, the earthquake was reported to have ceased.

Sources include the Vatican, “The Incorruptibles” by Joan Carroll Cruz, and “I Santi de Giovanni Paolo II” by Andreas Resch.

PRAYER TO JESUS CRUCIFIED, BY ST. EUSTOCHIA: Oh my sweetest Lord, I would like to die for your holy love like you died for me! Pierce my heart with the lance and with the nails of your most bitter Passion; the sores you had on your holy body, may I have them in my heart. I ask you for sores, because it is my great shame and shortcoming to see you, my Lord, wounded, when I am not wounded with You. Amen. (Translated by Fr. Roderick Vonhögen)