It is not uncommon to read the life of a saint and to learn that when the saint was a child he or she lost one or both of parents. Part of the reason for that, of course, is that for many periods of human history prior to recent times, life expectancy has been fairly low compared to what it is today in most parts of the world. For example, thanks to advances in hygiene and medicine, there are just so many more illnesses and diseases that can be treated today that in the past would simply have resulted in death.
When God allowed this to happen to the saints, it is interesting to note how these saints dealt with such a devastating blow as losing a parent when the saint was very young.
One recent example is St. Thérèse of Lisieux who lost her mother, Zelie Martin, when she was only four years of age. Her father, Louis Martin, did not remarry. Instead, Thérèse embraced her older sister Pauline, who was 12 years her senior, who became a mother to her and helped raise her in the Faith. The parents, Zelie and Louis Martin, had laid a good foundation in the lives of all of their daughters, and now both are canonized saints.
Another recent saint that lost his parents at a fairly young age is St. John Paul II. The youngest of three children, Karol, as he was known then, lost his mother to a heart attack and kidney failure when he was only eight years old. His older sister had already died before he was born. Later, his brother who was a doctor and 13 years older than Karol, died of scarlet fever contracted from his patients. Then, when Karol was 21 years of age, he became the sole surviving member of his biological family when his father died that year.
One of the ways that Karol Wojtyła dealt with these very difficult losses was to turn to Our Lady. In a very real way, Our Lady became a mother to him. And, thus, it is not surprising that throughout the rest of his life, John Paul II always had a deep devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. God had granted him another mother to help him deal with the loss of his own mother, and John Paul II expressed his gratitude with the affection and love he showed to Our Lady.
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St. Gemma and Her Early Life
Another saint who had to deal with the loss of her mother at a young age is St. Gemma Galgani. Gemma was born in 1878 in the Tuscany region of Italy. She lost her own mother when she seven years old, and her father died when she was eighteen.
After her father's death, as the oldest child, Gemma took over the care of her seven brothers and sisters. In addition, through most of her life, Gemma carried the cross of poor health, and due to her domestic responsibilities was not able to finish school. Although Gemma aspired to be a nun, she was not accepted into the Passionists because of her poor health.
Very early on, she developed a very deep devotion to Our Lady. She very often referred to Mary as "mother" or "mom."
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Her Healing and the Gifts She Received
When she was 20 years old, she almost died of tuberculosis of the spine. However, St. Gabriel Francis Posenti, a Passionist to whom Gemma had been praying, appeared to her and she was instantly cured.
The healing did not help her cause to become a religious as the sisters were suspicious of her miraculous cure. Although not allowed to become a religious, she was eventually allowed to become a Passionist tertiary.
However, her cure was not permanent and her tuberculosis returned. Gemma suffered with the disease for a long time before her eventual death at the age of 25 on Holy Saturday, April 11, 1903.
During her lifetime, Gemma experienced many spiritual gifts including seeing and speaking with her guardian angel. In addition, she was visited by Our Lord and Our Lady. And, over the course of almost two years beginning in 1899, Gemma received the stigmata every Thursday evening through three o'clock in the afternoon on Friday. In response to her cure and her apparitions and ecstasies, she was ridiculed by friends, family, and neighbors. Through all of this, Gemma maintained her household duties and chose to return kindness to those who mocked her.
Not surprisingly, Gemma was known for her strong will. In addition, she was also known for her playfulness. With her spiritual director, Fr. Germano who was a Passionist and whom she called "dad", she would gently chide him in her letters when he had not responded very quickly to her letters.
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Our Lady Visits with her Daughter St. Gemma
Her relationship with the Blessed Mother was very much a mother-daughter relationship.
And then, there is this exchange which she recorded when she was in ecstasy and was visited by the Blessed Virgin Mary. It shows how she treats Our Lady as her own mother. It also shows the playful way that Our Lady and Gemma interacted and the beautiful maternal affection of Our Lady has for her daughter Gemma. Gemma records:
It seemed to me, after some moments of emotion, that [Mary] took me in her lap and made me rest my head on her shoulder and keep it there for a short time. My heart during that time felt perfectly happy and contented without any other desire.
"Do you love only me?" she asked me now and then.
"Oh, no!" I answered her, "before you I love someone else."
"And who is it?" she asked, pretending not to know.
"It is one so dear to me! More dear than all else. I love Him so much that I would now, this moment, give my life for Him; for His sake I regard not my life."
"But tell me, who is it?" she asked me.
"If you, Mother, had come the evening before last, you would have seen Him with me. I instead go to Him every day [she meant in Holy Communion], and I would go more often if I could. But do You know Mother," I continued, "why I do so? Because I know that He wishes to see, by His keeping so far away from me, if I am capable of ceasing to love Him. But quite the contrary, the farther He keeps away, the more I feel drawn to Him!
And she repeated: "Tell me, who is He?"
"No," I replied, "I won't tell you. If only You have seen Him, Mother! He is like you in beauty; His hair is the color of yours."
Mother, then embracing me, seemed to say again, "But my child, tell me of whom are you speaking."
I then exclaimed aloud, "Do you not understand me? Of Jesus, I speak of Jesus."
"Repeat it still louder," she said. Then, smiling, she looked at me and pressed me closely to herself, saying, "Yes, love Him, but love Him greatly; Listen well! Love Him alone!"
"Don't be afraid," I said to her, "no one in the world shall taste my affections! Jesus alone."
Again she pressed me to her; she seemed to kiss me on the forehead. Then I awoke [meaning that she came out of the ecstasy], and I found myself stretched on the floor with the crucifix near me."
Learn More about St. Gemma
If you would like to learn more about the remarkable life of St. Gemma Galgani, you should read the biography which was written by her spiritual director Fr. Germanus. This is the priest that St. Gemma addressed as "dad" and who himself has been declared venerable.
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Feast Day (Memorial): April 11th and May 16th (Passionists)
Patron against the death of parents
Patron against temptations
Patron of students
Patron of paratroopers
Patron of druggists
Patron of apothecaries