Three Very Different Mothers Who Became Saints

by Melannie Svoboda SND on May 11, 2020

Today I wish all mothers a belated Happy Mother’s Day! In honor of mothers everywhere, I’d like to focus on three mothers who are saints in the Catholic Church: Saints Monica, Zelie Martin, and Dorothy Day. (Dorothy is not formally canonized yet, but the process has started.)

St. Monica (331-387) St. Monica was born in what is now Algeria in North Africa. The daughter of devout Christians, she was given in marriage to Patricius, a Roman pagan with a violent temper and a penchant for adultery. He also had a cantankerous mother who moved in with them. Monica could have turned into a bitter and angry woman, but she didn’t. In fact, she exemplified Christian love and joy so much, both her husband and mother-in-law eventually become Christians.

(Window in St. James Church in Bouxwiller. Photo by G. Freihalter)

Monica had three children who survived infancy: sons Augustine and Navigius, and a daughter Perpetua. It was her eldest son, Augustine, who caused her the most grief. He led a very wayward life, even fathering a son “out of wedlock.” For a while, Monica refused to let Augustine eat or sleep in her house. But one night she heard a voice in her heart say, “Stay close to your son.” So Monica changed her closed-door policy. Later, when Augustine secretly sailed to Italy, Monica got on a ship and followed him there. Once she visited a Bishop for advice, sobbing as she told him about her son. The bishop told her, “The child of such tears shall not perish.”

Monica found strength in his words. In time Augustine was converted and became one of the greatest saints, teachers, and writers of the church. For centuries Monica has been an example of persevering love and prayer. Like all good mothers she learned to entrust her children to God’s loving care.

St. Zelie Martin (1831-1877). Zelie was 26 when she passed Louis Martin, 34, on a bridge in her French town. She was immediately impressed by him, and later claimed an inner voice said to her, “This is the man I’ve prepared for you.” But it was Louis’ mother who actually met Zelie first in a lace-making class, and she introduced her to her son. The couple was married and began a happy life together–despite their trials. Zelie bore nine children, but four of them died before the age of six (the youngest was named Melanie.) The other five—all girls—eventually became nuns. Therese (the Little Flower) is canonized. Her sister Leonie’s canonization is in process.

(Canonization tapestry)

Louis, a monastery “reject” (because he didn’t know Latin!), was a jeweler and watchmaker who loved nature, was drawn to prayer, and enjoyed fishing. His wife was also a remarkable woman. A skilled seamstress, she ran her own lace making business, eventually employing 15 other women who worked in their own homes. She was deeply devoted to Louis. Once he was gone for several weeks on a pilgrimage. Zelie’s letter to him includes these touching words: I am with you all day in spirit. I love you with all my heart, and I feel my affection doubled by being deprived of your company. I could not live apart from you. Zelie died in 1877 of breast cancer. She was 46. Louis died in 1894 after suffering two paralyzing strokes. Zelie and Louis were canonized by Pope Francis in 2015, the first married couple in history to be canonized together. (Hopefully, not the last!)

Dorothy Day (1897-1980). Dorothy Day, not yet a Catholic, was a Brooklyn journalist and social activist. As a young woman, she had several men in her life. Her first relationship ended with an abortion, a decision she later greatly regretted. She married her second boyfriend in a civil ceremony, but the relationship did not last. Then Dorothy fell in love with Forster Batterham, another social activist. The two of them had a daughter, Tamar. Dorothy was delighted. He was not. During this time Dorothy became very interested in the Catholic church. Her interest in religion angered Forster. When she was baptized in 1927, he refused to attend the ceremony.

Dorothy Day

Dorothy desperately wanted to marry Forster and wrote him many beautiful, passionate letters. But Forster refused and their relationship ended, leaving Dorothy a single mom. She tried to focus on her daughter, her newfound faith, and her love and action for the poor. Keeping that balance was not always easy. In time she co-established the Catholic Worker movement which combined direct aid to the poor with nonviolent direct action on their behalf. Today there are more than 200 Catholic Worker communities around the world carrying out her legacy.

Dorothy is a model for integrating personal prayer, service, and activism in defense of those who are forsaken in any way. Over the years she participated in numerous demonstrations and was arrested many times. She was deeply devoted to the Catholic Church while simultaneously challenging that Church to practice what it teaches. Her writings and actions were sometimes controversial. If you want to know Dorothy better, I suggest: 1) her autobiography, The Long Loneliness; 2) Dorothy Day: Selected Writings by Robert Ellsberg; and 3) Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved by Beauty by her granddaughter, Kate Hennessy.

Did any of these stories strike you today? If so, which one?

Is there a particular mother you know who is “saintly”? Why do you think so?

If you are a mother, what has been your greatest challenges and your greatest joys?

Our video today is a virtual choir singing “Salve Regina,” a hymn to Mary, our Mother. Written in the Middle Ages, this ancient hymn will be sung in the original Latin by a choir of Carmelite nuns and friars from all over the world. I have included an English translation of the prayer below the video.

Hail Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy, Hail our life our sweetness and our hope… To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve… To thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this value of tears… Turn then, most gracious advocate, thine eyes of mercy toward us… And after this our exile, show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus… O clement, O loving, O sweet virgin Mary.

Please write a response below if you wish!

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Thomas DeFreitas May 11, 2020 at 5:11 am

Good morning, Sr Melannie and everyone! —

Yes. All three stories struck me in some way. St Monica reminds me of my own exceedingly patient and loving mom. Maybe I wasn’t as “Augustinian” (!!) as some sons, but I did give my mom much cause for anxiety and worry, even woe, when I was in my 20s and early 30s.

St Zelie’s letter to her husband (and fellow saint, and fellow parent-of-saint!) is so deeply affecting.

And Dorothy Day reminds us that God always looks upon us with the eyes of love, and draws us Godward unceasingly. We ourselves might lose sight of “the divine watermark” impressed upon our souls (odd metaphor, perhaps, but let it stand) … but God is always coaxing us, either gently or forcibly … inviting us to participate in joy and life and light! — whatever nettles, troubles, failures, or faults, might occupy our past. Dorothy Day is a great “nunc coepi” saint (“now I begin”!). It seemed she was always inexhaustibly beginning!

I’ve watched and listened to the first several seconds of the Salve, and have queued it to my “watch later” videos. It sounds quite lovely; indeed, sublime.

Peace and light, everyone, grace and good.

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John E Hopkins May 11, 2020 at 6:10 am

Good morning, Sr. Melannie…
Good morning, all….

This blog has been an illumination in so many way! I hardly no where to begin. There’s the fiesty, tenacious, and patient Monica, the intuitive and loving Zelie (What a great name!), and the thoroughly modern Dorothy — truly a Saint for our times, and, as you suggest, someone willing to challenge the church with her rosary in one hand and a placard in the other.

I have been blessed with several amazing mothers. There’s my first mother, Alice, who died of lung cancer in 1963 when I was six. Then there’s Marion, whom my father married seven years later. At eighty-eight she’s still going strong! We had lovely — in person — chat yesterday (keeping our distance, of course!).

But this morning I want to talk about my sister Zita. When our mother died, Zita was eleven. We were the youngest of five. Our father, perhaps to cope with the grief and pay medical bills, threw himself into his work; our Nana — another saintly mother! — did all the cooking, laundry, and cleaning. She was seventy-seven. God love her!

But Zita was always there, making sure I got on the trollie to go to school (my first teachers were SNDs!), making sure I never lost the magic of Christmas, and making sure I practiced basic hygiene! I have this vivid memory her waking me up and dragging me to the bathroom to wash my dirty hands and face, to brush my teeth embedded with that tooth-killing candy, Dots!

She died in 2016 of pulmonary fibrosis, but not before starting a lovely family of her own. God bless you, Saint Zita! And thank you!

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Kathleen Magiera May 11, 2020 at 6:50 am

Good Morning Everyone!

St. Monica is one of my favorite saints. She never gives up on Augustine! Her persistent prayers for him are truly inspiring. It is only from heaven that she see his true potential put into action.

Thanks for sharing the stories of all these great women.

Kathleen

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Pete May 11, 2020 at 8:41 am

A beautiful rendition of Salve Regina, the technology putting this together is amazing. On Dorothy Day’s headstone it simply says. “Deo Gratias” . So I say, Gratias Sororis for your blog.

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Joseph Fahy May 11, 2020 at 9:04 am

Good morning Sister, So pleased with your choice of Dorothy Day. She spoke at LaSalle College, Philadelphia, in 1962 at the invitation of our Department Head, Bro. D. Augustine, FSC. At that time she was still rather controversial but Brother Augustine admired her and in many ways such as this choice proved to be a visionary. After so many years, I can only paraphrase one of her remarks that I have never forgotten – at her table there is always room for one more; everybody else just eats a little less.

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George Marsh May 11, 2020 at 9:39 am

A story about Monica goes: She pleaded with the bishop of Milan (St. Ambrose?) to intercede with Augustine because her pleadings had not converted him. He replied, “Speak more to God about Augustine than to Augustine about God.” She did, and Augustine converted.

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JoAnn DiNardo May 11, 2020 at 1:45 pm

I feel that that bishop still talking to me through the centuries. My children believe in God but not in religion. Talking to adult children about their faith is counterproductive; they do not like being told what to do. But I pray everyday for their change of hearts.

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Lawrence May 11, 2020 at 11:12 am

St Monica was my inspiration. My husband and I were married in the Catholic Church but he was not Catholic. We went to the Pre-Cana classes but this didn’t mean conversion. Then shortly after getting married he agreed to go to a one-on-one conversion journey with a parish priest. But that didn’t bring conversion either.
As our children went to Catholic schools and received the sacraments, he would attend the masses but that didn’t mean conversion. After 55 yrs of marriage and prayer he was baptized. He was in hospice and died less than 48 hrs. following reception into the Church! I used to tease him that he would go straight to heaven while I would probably spend time in purgatory! I have come to realize that God was testing my faithfulness.

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Jean Canatsey May 11, 2020 at 11:29 am

So much content today!
I loved your choice of mother’s who became saints. St. Monica, because I think most mothers (at least those with more than one child) have a “problem child” and St Zelie because she had many children (like me) and she and her husband were a team (like my husband and I). I can’t imagine any honor greater than being canonized together as a married couple. I also liked that she had a daughter named Melanie. (Just like we do.) I’ve always identified with Dorothy Day because of her activism and her concern for the marginalized.
I grew up singing “Salve Regina” (In Latin) and our family made many visits to the Carmelite Monastery in Indianapolis, IN in the 1960’s and 1970’s. I’ll never forget being introduced to Liturgical Dance during a Christmas Midnight Mass when two nuns in tunics danced around the altar to “Wonderful, Counselor”.
Thank you, Sr. Melannie, for the memories!

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Joy A Martin May 11, 2020 at 11:34 am

Music sung in Latin is more sacred to me…Thank you Sister Mellanie.

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Joy A Martin May 11, 2020 at 11:40 am

I do apologize for spelling your name incorrectly Sr. Melannine.
have a safe journey…

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Evelyn Allen May 11, 2020 at 11:53 am

Mother’s Day is an opportunity to reflect on the saintly mothers in our own life. (1) My Mom – widowed at 32 with a four year old daughter. It was 1937 – no social security benefits, no support group, no employment. Yet with Irish determination she would overcome this unfortunate situation. She rose to the highest level available to women at that time in the corporation, particularly significant for someone who only had two years of high school. She passed on June 1, 1993 – an inspiration and a loving Mom, Grandma and Great-grandma.
(2) My Grandma – arriving at Ellis Island with a two year old from Sicily to join her husband who had found work in this new country. They lived in the Italian neighborhood of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. When her youngest son, my father, had died my Mom promised that we would continue to be family. So after Mass, we would have Sunday dinner at Grandma’s: homemade soup, pasta, homegrown vegetables, chicken (selected live by my grandma at the market). This lasted at least five hours. Grandma went to daily Mass until she was 90 and could no longer walk the six blocks to Church. She passed on at age 93.
(3) My Aunt Dot – the younger sister of my Mom had a difficult life, yet was always so cheerful. My uncle was an inconsistent provider, so she found part-time evening employment. Their third child, Patty, was born with Down’s Syndrome. My aunt said she was her little angel. When my aunt could no longer care for Patty, now 58, she entered a nursing home that was within walking distance. When my aunt became feeble, she joined Patty in that same room. My aunt always said she could not die before Patty because her daughter would not understand. Patty died at age 62; my aunt died in her sleep four months later at age 96.
There are, I am sure, many Moms who share eternity together with those whom we recognize as Saints. The ones whom I have mentioned are among them.

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Helen Schuler May 11, 2020 at 12:06 pm

Simply heavenly! Such a blessing to take in the musical magnificence of these devote children of God!

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Dorothy Distel May 11, 2020 at 1:20 pm

Sr. Melannie, Thank you for the mothers stories you chose to inspire all of us this morning. I have also loved reading the comments all have shared, and am especially grateful “sons” have commented and shared their love, appreciation and devotion to all those who mothered them along the way. We can all relate to that sentiment and thank all those who mothered us.
God’s blessings on us all, we pray.

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Sr. Kate Hine May 11, 2020 at 3:21 pm

I was happy to see you feature, Zelie Martin, Melannie! I’m involved with a group that is establishing a home for homeless pregnant women. We are calling it Zelie’s Home because we wanted a strong and loving mother as a patron. We would appreciate the prayers of your readers for this new endeavor!

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Kim May 11, 2020 at 9:23 pm

So enjoy your writings, sister. I also want to thank all those who comment. We learn from each other

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JOANNE May 11, 2020 at 10:53 pm

SISTER MELANNIE I ADMIRE ST. MONICA AND HER GETTING AUGUSTINE TO COME TO OUR LORD. A PRIEST I KNEW IN SONOMA, CA. STATED THAT I WAS SOMEWHAT LIKE AUGUSTINE AT ONE POINT IN MY LIFE. NOW I ATTEND MASS DAILY. THANKS FOR ALL YOUR WONDERFUL SUNFLOWER SEED STORIES, I LOOK FORWARD TO THEM EVERY MONDAY. JOANNE

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Cathy Peterson May 12, 2020 at 1:28 am

I enjoyed reading about all three women but must admit that Dorothy Day is the one who most inspires me. I have both books and DVD movies about her life and admire her work on behalf of the poor, forgotten and neglected. I view her as a patron saint of social justice.

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S.Carolyn May 12, 2020 at 4:52 pm

Amazing and beautiful.

Thank you for your continued sharing and ministry!

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Rebecca Johansen May 12, 2020 at 10:13 pm

I thank you for the Sunflower Seeds
My mother inspired my faith and I feel that I struggle with my children falling away from God because of the people they associate with.
I fervently pray for my son to stay away from pornography but it seems to be everywhere.
I truly enjoy your emails

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Cecelia Quigley May 17, 2020 at 6:56 am

Sister, I was so fortunate to be raised by a devout father and mother in the Catholic Church. I loved my catholic education and all of the sisters who devoted their lives to education. I reflect back to them and wish I could be more like them I am a mother of of two beautiful birth children and 3 adopted children. Their lives are all so different because of the journeys of life they have chosen. I love them all and pray that they will find God. I know I would not have accomplished or survived without Him.
Thank you for sharing these 3 beautiful stories. Once again God has shown me there is hope and He has a plan for each and everyone of us. He is always there even in our darkness hour.

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