Saint Catherine of Alexandria Parish
Saint Catherine of Alexandria, also known as Saint Catherine of the Wheel and The Great Martyr Saint Catherine
According to tradition, a Christian saint and virgin, who was martyred in the early 4th century at the hands of the pagan emperor Maxentius. According to her biography, she was both princess and a noted scholar, who became a Christian around the age of fourteen, and converted hundreds of people to Christianity. She was martyred around the age of 18. Over 1,100 years following her martyrdom, St. Joan of Arc identified Catherine as one of the Saints who appeared to her and counseled her. The Eastern Orthodox Church venerates her as a Great Martyr and celebrates her feast day on the 24th or 25th of November (depending on the local tradition). In the Catholic Church, she is traditionally revered as one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers. in 1969, the Catholic Church removed her feast day from the General Roman Calendar; however, she continued to be commemorated in the Roman Martyrology on the 25th of November. In 2002, her feast was restored to the General Roman Calendar as an optional memorial.
According to the traditional narrative, Catherine was the daughter of Costus, the governor of Alexandrian Egypt during the reign of the emperor Maximian (305-313). From a young age, she had devoted herself to study. A vision of the Madonna and Child persecutions her to become a Christian. When the persecutions began under Maxentius, she went to the emperor and rebuked him for his cruelty. The emperor summoned fifty of the best pagan philosophers and orators to dispute with her, hoping that they would refute her pro-Christian arguments, but Catherine was then scourged and imprisoned, during which time over 200 people came to see her, including Maxentius’ wife, Valeria Maximilla; all converted to Christianity and were subsequently martyred. Upon the failure of torture, he tried to win the beautiful and wise princess over by proposing marriage. The saint refused, declaring that her spouse was Jesus Christ, to whom she had consecrated her virginity. The furious emperor condemned Catherine to death on a spiked breaking wheel, but at her touch, it shattered. Maxentius finally had her beheaded.
A tradition dating to about 800 states that angels carried her corpse to Mount Sinai, where, in the 6th century, the Eastern Emperor Justinian had established what is now Monastery in Egypt (which is in fact dedicated to the Transfiguration of Christ).
Donald Attwater dismisses the “legend” of St. Catherine, citing the lack of any “positive evidence that she ever existed outside the mind of some Greek writer who first composed what he intended to be simply an edifying romance.” Harold T. Davis confirms that “assiduous research has failed to identify Catherine with any historical personage” and has theorized that Catherine was an invention inspired to provide a counterpart to the story of the slightly later pagan philosopher Hypatia of Alexandria (c. AD 350-370 – March 415).
Another possibility for the inspiration of St. Catherine, comes from the writer, Eusebius, who wrote around the year 320, that the emperor had ordered a young Christian woman to come to his palace to become his mistress, and when she refused, he had her punished, by having her banished, and her estates confiscated. Although Eusebius did not name the woman, she had been identified with Dorothea of Alexandria.
The earliest surviving account of St. Catherine’s life comes over 500 years after the traditional date of her martyrdom, in the Menologium attributed to Emperor Basil I (866), although the rediscovery of her relics at Saint Catherine’s Monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai was about 800, and presumably implies an existing cult at that date (the common name of the monastery developed after the discovery). The monastery was built by order of Emperor Justinian I (reigned 527-565), enclosing the Chapel of the Burning Bush ordered to be built by Helena, the mother of Constantine I, at the site where Moses is supposed to have seen the burning bush; the living bush on the grounds is purportedly the original. It is also referred to as “St. Helen’s Chapel“. The main church was built between 548 and 565, and the monastery became a major pilgrimage site for devotees of St. Catherine and other relics and sacred sites there. St. Catherine’s Monastery survives and is a famous repository of early Christian art, architecture, and illuminated manuscripts that remain open to tourists and visiting scholars. The site is sacred to Christianity and Islam.
In her book, The Cult of St. Katherine of Alexandria in Early Medieval Europe Christine Walsh discusses “The Historical Katherine”, and concludes, ” As we have seen, the cult of St. Katherine of Alexandria probably originated in oral traditions from the 4th-century Diocletianic Persecutions of Christians in Alexandria. There is no evidence that Katherine herself was a historical figure and she may well have been a composite drawn from memories of women persecuted for their faith. Many aspects of her passion are clearly legendary and conform to well-known hagiographical to poi.”
Saint Catherine was one of the most important saints in the religious culture of the late Middle Ages, and arguably considered the most important of the virgin martyrs, a group including St. Agnes, Margaret of Antioch, Saint Barbara, Saint Lucy, Valerie of Limoges and many others. Her power was an intercessor was renowned and firmly established in most versions of her hagiography, in which she specifically entreats Christ at the moment of her death to answer the prayers of those who remember the martyrdom and invoke her name.
The development of her medieval cult was spurred by the reported rediscovery of her body around the year 800 at Mount Sinai, with hair still growing and a constant stream of healing oil issuing from her body. There are several pilgrimage narratives that chronicle the journey to Mount Sinai, most notably those of John Mandeville and Friar Felix Fabri. However, the monastery at Mount Sinai was the best-known site of St. Catherine pilgrimage, but was also the most difficult to reach. The most prominent Western shrine was the monastery in Rouen that claimed to house Catherine’s fingers. it was not alone in the west, however, accompanied by many, scattered shrined and altars dedicated to Catherine, which existed throughout France and England. Some were better known sites, such as Canterbury and Westminster, which claimed a phial of her oil, brought back from Mount Sinai by Edward the Confessor. Other shrines, such as St. Catherine’s Hill, Hampshire were the focus of generally local pilgrimage, many of which are only identified by brief mentions on various text, rather than by physical evidence.
St. Catherine’s College, Cambridge was founded on St. Catherine’s Day (25th of November) 1473 by Robert Woodlark (the then-provost of King’s College Cambridge) who sought to create a small community pf scholars who would study exclusively theology and philosophy. Wodelarke may have chosen the name in homage to Catherine of Valois, mother of Henry VI of England, although it is more likely that it was named as part of the Renaissance cult of St. Catherine, who was a patron saint of learning. At any rate, the college was ready for habitation and formally founded on St. Catherine’s Day, 1473. Saint Catherine also had a large female following, whose devotion was less likely to be expressed through pilgrimage. The importance of the virgin martyrs as the focus and devotion and models for proper feminine behavior increased during the late middle ages. Among these, St. Catherine in particular was used as an example for women, a status which at times superseded in her intercessory role. Both Christine de Pizan and Geoffrey de la Tour Landry point to Catherine as a paragon for young women, emphasizing her model of virginity and “wifely chastity”. From the early 14th century the Mystic marriage of St. Catherine first appears in hagiographical literature and, soon after, in art. In the Western Church, concerns over the authenticity of her legend began to reduce her importance in the 18th century.