St. Catherine of Alexandria is a saint of great interest locally because she is the patron saint of St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota. November 25 was her feast day for many years. She was dropped from the liturgical calendar in 1969, but recently her memorial was reinstated in the revised Roman Missal. There is little reliable historical data about her life, but her legendary story is inspiring.
Youthful beginnings. St. Catherine lived in Alexandria, Egypt, during the fourth century AD. She was born into an upper class pagan Roman family. She was blessed with intellectual genius and a fierce hunger for learning, as well as striking beauty, but as attractive as she was, she preferred learning and philosophy to marriage.
Her conversion story. There are two main legends about Catherine’s conversion to Christianity. According to the first, the Blessed Mother appeared to a hermit in the Egyptian desert. The hermit went to Catherine and showed her an image of the Madonna and Christ child which led to her immediate conversion at the age of eighteen. Not only that, she was “mystically married” to Christ, and the Christ child placed a ring on her finger. According to another version, the Christ child and the Blessed Mother appeared to her directly.
Incredible bravery. Subsequently Catherine preached about Jesus and the gospel throughout Alexandria at a time when the emperor Maxentius was conducting a persecution against Christians. In a bold and daring move, Catherine approached the emperor, scolded him for his persecution, and voiced strong arguments against the pagan Roman gods. The emperor could not withstand her wisdom so he assembled fifty leading pagan philosophers to debate with her. Not only did Catherine win the debate, they all converted to Christianity. Incensed, the emperor had all fifty burned to death, but he spared Catherine because he lusted for her.
A mystical marriage untainted. Maxentius was enthralled with Catherine’s beauty, and he tried to seduce her, even though he was a married man with a queen. He went so far as to promise Catherine that he would crown her his new queen. Catherine flatly denied his advances. Rejected and mortified, the enraged emperor had Catherine beaten and thrown into prison.
A curious twist. Intrigued by Catherine, both the queen and an army general went secretly to visit Catherine in prison. Because of her remarkable faith, both the empress, the general, and two hundred prison guards converted. Maxentius went berserk and had them all executed.
Catherine’s martyrdom. The emperor decided to torture Catherine’s chaste body by stretching it over a large spiked wheel with tall points on the surface and a sharp blade on the side. Miraculously, before the torture could begin, her shackles were loosened and the wheel shattered, reportedly by angels. She was finally beheaded. Then, according to the legend, her body was flown by the angels to Mount Sinai where she was buried.
A strong advocate. St. Catherine of Alexandria is the patron saint of philosophers, librarians, university students, young women, preachers, apologists, lawyers, notaries, and wheelwrights. She is also revered as one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, a group of saints thought to have special intercessory power.