When I say “lady saint,” what’s the first word that comes to mind? Was it “badass”? No? Well, that is just so sad. You, my friend, have been missing out on some terrific role models.
Fact: Jessica Jones wasn’t the first shero with a chip on her shoulder and supernatural muscles to flex. Before Marvel Comics got in on the superheroine game, the Catholic Church had that ish on lock. I’m talking about actual, living, breathing, historical women here — ladies who led the way, stood up for their convictions, and weren’t afraid to cause a ruckus or die for their cause.
Disclaimer: The information I’m about to reveal is supremely biased — biased in favor of amazing. There are a lot of saints on the books (more than 10,000 at last count), and while many of them exemplify purity, charity and other snooze-inducing virtues, there are others who were, shall we say, a bit more complex. In other words, the ladies you are about to meet are not your average nuns, virgins, and mystics. (Although many of them were those things too.) (Also, have you met the Nuns on a Bus? Or seen Sister Act? Don’t mess with nuns is all I’m saying.)
These are the edgy ladies, the gals with serious ovaries, the ones who make a girl say, hell yeah, I’ll light a candle to her.
Here, friends, I present nine truly badass lady saints.
Katie Bayerl is the author of Psalm for Lost Girls, out March 14, 2017 from G.P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers. Pre-order it now.
1Saint Quiteria: Escape Artist Gangster
Saint Quiteria, you evasive minx. Portuguese legend has it that she was one of nine daughters of a 5th century Galician prince — all born simultaneously. Their mother, disgusted by the ordeal, demanded all nine girls drowned, but (first escape!) a maid hooked them up with a nice peasant lady, who was like, yeah, sure, I can raise nine extra babies, nbd.
When Papa Prince discovered his daughters years later, he asked them to be good girls and marry nice Roman officials and recognize respectable Roman gods. They refused on all counts. Dad got pissed and had all nine girls locked away in a tower, but then: (escape number two!) they busted out of that joint and formed a roving guerilla gang, breaking Christians free from jail and wreaking havoc on the Roman Empire. When the law finally caught up, Quiteria was — gulp — beheaded.
Look, I didn’t promise happy endings, ok? Not in life anyway. After her death, Quiteria became a cult symbol across Portugal, northern Spain, and southern France, where centuries later, feasts are still held in her name.
2Saint Philomena: Patroness of the Youth
The Emperor of Rome was used to getting his way, but when he set his eye on 13-year-old Philomena, she was like: nope. So, he had her thrown in a dungeon and beaten, and still she refused that dirty old Emperor.
Bound to a pillar and beaten. Still: nope. Flung in a river with an anchor around her neck: nope nope nope. Shot through with arrows: still alive! And no, you nasty old creep.
Emperor, meanwhile, was getting embarrassed. A whole lot of people were converting to Christianity, thanks to young Philomena’s miracles. So, Emperor Whathisface did what any powerful, vindictive, desperate misogynist would do: had the girl beheaded.
(Erm. Where were we going with this one?)
Our girl Philomena definitely had some grit. Today, she’s known as the Patroness of Youth. Still, I’m going to suggest you kids don’t try her tricks at home.
3Saint Anna Wang: Light of China
It was 1900, and the Boxers were knocking down churches and slaying Chinese Christians and missionaries in an attempt to rid China of Western influence. When Anna and her kin were rounded up, they were given the choice: renounce their faith or be killed. Anna, then age 14, chose option two, leading a group of women in prayer as her captors prodded her with their weapons. As the story goes, one bandit sliced off her right arm, but Anna kept right on praying, left arm extended to heaven. She then stretched out her neck, and yup… you guessed the rest.
Anna is among 30,000 Chinese Christians killed during the Boxer Rebellion and one of 120 martyr saints of China officially canonized by the Catholic Church.
4Saint Margaret of Antioch: Slayer of Dragons
This story starts out like so many others: girl is abandoned by parents, raised by a pious sheep-herding foster mom, embraces Christ, declares herself a virgin, when— oops — a nasty Roman official peeps her, feels a crush coming on, and sets about torturing her. Margaret withstands the dude’s “advances” (seriously? he thought flaying was romantic?), and various miracles ensue until she’s swallowed by Satan — in the shape of a dragon! — only to escape when the cross she carries irritates the demon’s fiery bowels.
In the end, the beast is slayed, but Margaret’s head is chopped off, and she goes on to become a popular medieval saint, worshipped as protector against demonic possession as well as… birth defects?
The facts on this one may not be 100% verifiable, but I’m going to go ahead and suggest you don’t mess with Margaret of Antioch because, damn, a dragon? Seriously?
5Saint Hildegard of Bingen: Original Renaissance Woman
We’re going to switch pace for a second here, insert a slow jam, if you will. But don’t be fooled by the lack of violence in this one. This lady saint was fast as lightening… intellectually.
Hildegard, born long before the period we know as the Renaissance, composed liturgical music, wrote plays, preached sermons, authored books on theology, botany, and natural medicine, invented her own language, and oh yeah, by the way, she also founded two monasteries and experienced mystical visions that she described as “the voice of the Living Light.”
Try topping that, Thomas Aquinas. Just try.
6Jeanne d’Arc: Warrior for God
You knew we’d get here eventually. Seventeen-year-old peasant girl leads an army into battle? Thumbs her nose at Anglo occupiers and drives French forces to victory?
That is badass.
Young Jeanne (you may know her as Joanie) loved God, said “no thanks” to marriage, and rode a horse like a true gender-nonconforming bandit. She’d begun hearing voices at age 13 and was convinced God had dealt her a mission to save France. Some people bought that. Others, only when convenient.
In her second big battle, Jeanne was thrown from her horse, abandoned, and taken captive by the Anglos. Those jerkwads then charged Jeanne with a whole slew of crimes, including heresy, witchcraft, and dressing like a man. (Screw them. She looks amazing in those breeches.) Her former bud, Charles VII (who was made king because of Jeanne, thank you very much), totally dissed her at this point, and her captors were like, shrug, what can we do?... and burned her at the stake.
King Charlie apologized later and cleared Jeanne’s name, but too little too late, dude! What the heck?
7Erzulie: Maîtresse of Vodou
She’s a spirit, she’s a deity, she’s a… well, it’s complicated, ok? Erzulie/Erzili/Ezili/Sili is a prominent lwa of Haitian vodou, a religion that blends West African mythologies with Catholic symbolism. And she is totally fascinating.
Erzulie has many faces — she can be “cool” (Erzulie Fréda: the flirty spirit of love, beauty, and wealth), or “hot” (Erzulie Dantor: fierce protector of women and children). Erzulie Cœur Noir, the red-eyed swamp crone, works some serious sorcery with her machete. Erzulie is frequently depicted as one of several Catholic saints (including, Joan of Arc), a practice that allowed enslaved Africans to carry on their spiritual traditions under French colonial rule.
Although she’s tough one to pin down, one thing is always true of Erzulie: whatever face she wears, this mistress of vodou always — always — has the back of any woman who seeks her protection.
8Saint Catherine of the Wheel
This virgin scholar loved her some book-learnin’. Daughter of the Governor of Alexandria (Egypt), she saw a vision of the Virgin Mary as a girl and really found her groove with Christ. But Emperor Maximinus got on her nerves, man. Going on and on about Roman gods and crap. Persecuting anyone who disagreed. So Catherine called him out, and they had a fierce debate. Did I mention my girl was smart as hell? She verbally slayed that emperor, plus his posse of scholars. Dude didn’t stand a chance. Being a man of excess pride and limited wit, Max felt his only option was to imprison Catherine. Torture and marriage proposals ensued. (Le sigh.)
Meanwhile, left and right, Max’s buddies were converting to Christianity, thanks to Catherine’s eloquence. Max couldn’t put those guys to death fast enough. Growing desperate, the extremely angry emperor condemned Catherine to death on the wheel. But — get this — when our silver-tongued scholar touched that thing: poof! It shattered to bits!
In the end, Catherine was… yes… beheaded. But then angels carried her body off to Mount Sinai, so that part was nice.
9Santa Marta la Dominadora
I shouldn’t play favorites. Am I allowed to play favorites? (Psst. This one: my favorite.) Santa Marta is pretty much the baddest of the bunch. Another Yoruba deity cloaked in Catholic garb, Marta the Dominator (la Baronesa to you, babe) is one of the more popular spirits of Afro-Caribbean santería, and there’s no question why. I mean, look at her. That hair! Those serpents!
Marta la Dominadora is loosely linked to the legend of Saint Martha, sister of Lazarus and Mary, who subdued an evil serpent using only the ribbons from her girdle. Like her Haitian cousin Erzulie, Marta has many manifestations and many moods. She is the mother of all living things, serpent goddess of the sea, a healer, a witch, and magician. She’ll mend your wounds, conquer your beloved, and vanquish your enemies. All before breakfast. When Marta is pissed, you don’t want to mess with her. Or maybe you do. Because when you pray to la Dominadora, she’ll bring your demons to her feet, flattening them like dough.
I don’t know about you, but this saint’s definitely got my candle burning bright.