Blind, Dwarfed, Deformed And Rejected, But Strong In His Mighty Power
Compilation by John Warrener
Margaret of Castello, O.P.
1287 - 1320
The year was 1287, and the Lord and Lady of Metola in the Papal States were expecting a baby. They hoped for a fine, strong son to be their heir, or at least a beautiful daughter to marry off in an alliance. But the child born to them was small for her age, with one leg shorter than the other, and the infant was... not a pretty baby. Her parents ordered her to be hidden away, to be seen only be a few servants. Perhaps they hoped thing would improve as the child grew older. Instead they soon discovered the infant was blind. And the child's right leg remained shorter than the left, so that when she learned to walk she walked with a limp. Because of the limp (and her poor care) she soon developed a hunchback. And she remained small for her age, and beyond all that the ugly baby grew to be an ugly child, at least in the eyes of her parents.
When Margaret grew a bit older the servants allowed her to walk about in the castle as long as she avoided the areas most frequented by her parents. Margaret soon learned her way around and could walk about independently. This was well enough until the day Margaret came upon a noble guest and nearly told the guest whose daughter she was. A servant found her and stopped her in time, but her parents learned about the incident. They could not allow this to happen again, for they could not bear to have it be known that this creature was their daughter. They found a chapel in the forest, and had a chamber built into the side. There Margaret was locked away at the age of 6, alone but for the servant who brought her food and the priest that was allowed to bring her the Eucharist. When these visitors were gone Margaret was alone, with none to talk to but God and the birds outside her prison.
Margaret passed full 12 years in her chamber in the woods, when war broke out and Margaret was brought back to the castle for safekeeping. Soon peace returned, and at the same time rumors also came to Metola, of miracles in the town of Castello. A holy friar had died there, and at his tomb it was said the sick were healed and the lame could walk. Well, thought Margaret's parents, why not a blind hunchback cured? Margaret prayed so much, surely she'd earned a favor from God. And what of them? They were, after all, the Lord and Lady of Metola, surely God owed them a miracle after all He had put them through. And so it was off to Castello, to the tomb of Fra Giacomo, where they heard nothing but talk of miracles, and could see the crutches abandoned, unneeded, at the church were the friar lay buried. There Margaret was told to pray for a miracle, which she did from morning to night. But no miracles came.
There Margaret's parents lost the last hope of having the daughter of their ambitions. And there also they found justification to do what they had long wished to do. For if God Himself had rejected Margaret, surely it was their right to do the same. And so by night the Lord and Lady returned to Metola, alone.
That night Margaret waited at the church for parents that never came. She did not know the way back to the inn where they had stayed; and for anyone to wander through the streets by night would have been foolish, much more a blind woman unfamiliar with the city, and dressed in the clothes of a noblewoman at that. Perhaps at first Margaret though her parents delayed, or even worried that something had become of them. But as the night wore on, she must have suspected they would not return, and wondered what would become of her. Although her parents had little to offer her in the way of love, they had at least provided her with food and clothes, and with shelter, such as it was. There were few career opportunities in the 13th century for a woman, or for anyone with Margaret's disabilities.
It was the beggars of the town who found her, took her in, and taught her to be one of their own. They taught her the lay of the city, until she could travel on her own. And she soon came to the attention of the general populace, as well. One more beggar would have caused little notice, but a blind hunchback midget appearing out of nowhere, not to mention a beggar with the speech and manners of a noblewoman, was a curiosity indeed. Many were suspicious of Margaret, but her kindness, cheerfulness, and piety won over many people, and even convinced some of the people of the town to take her into their homes. And they were rewarded, for Margaret was quick to help with the chores, and especially skilled at caring for the children of whatever family she stayed with. And whether by her prayers or her example, Margaret was said to have a positive influence on the people she encountered and the families she lived among.
And so Margaret traveled from home to home. In time, word of Margaret, and of her religious devotion, reached one of the convents of Castello. The sisters decided to invite Margaret to join them. Margaret was overjoyed at the offer; firstly because she did not wish to be a burden on her hosts any longer, and secondly because devoting herself to a life of prayer was appealing to Margaret. Perhaps also she hoped the convent would provide the home and family she had never truly had.
There was only one problem - Margaret was too devout. The sisters of the convent had thought themselves to be doing a great service, taking this poor crippled girl into their convent. But they soon found Margaret was working harder than they were, praying more often than they were, and all around making them look bad. Before long Margaret was back on the streets, having been sent away from the convent as a "disruptive influence".
Through all this Margaret renown grew in the city, albeit not exclusively for the better. Some took the convent's rejection as proof that Margaret was nothing but a skilled beggar, playing on people's sympathy to part them from their money and food. Still there were many who remained convinced that Margaret was a holy woman, and she came to the attention of the Mantellatae. The Mantellatae were lay members of the Dominican Order, women who wished to participate in the work of the Dominican order without becoming nuns. They were mostly widows who remained "in the world" and committed themselves to regular prayer and service to the poor, sick, or prisoners. Some of their number believed that Margaret should be invited to join them, but others argued that she was too young. The Mantellate were widows or, in some cases, older married women; young, unmarried women were never accepted into the order for fear of scandal. But the Dominican Prior in Castello was convinced that Margaret's character was such that an exception could be safely made in her case. And so it was.
Shortly after joining the Mantellate, Margaret was adopted into the household of a wealthy family of Castello. Up to this time she had moved frequently from house to house, as none of her benefactors could afford to support her for long. But now she remained with this family, and later one other, for the remainder of her life. Her needs being taken care of by her hosts, Margaret was free to devote herself to the care of the sick and dying. In time she also began to visit the city prison. Her friends protested, not wishing Margaret to be exposed to the rough company of prisoners or to the disease that bred in the poor prison conditions. But after a childhood imprisoned and treated as less than human by her parents, Margaret had sympathy for the prisoners and wished to tend their needs and, most of all, to remind them that despite their living conditions that they were still human and children of God.
Margaret continued in these pursuits until her death on April 13, 1320, at the age of 33. She was immediately acclaimed to be a saint, but it was not until 1609 that she was formally declared Blessed, a precursor to being declared a saint by the Catholic Church. Her cause was no doubt furthered after 1558, when her body was disinterred and found to still be intact after 200 years. And even unto the present day Margaret's body, judged to be "ugly" and "deformed", has remained free from decay, centuries after the bodies of her parents and so many others who judged her in life have crumbled to dust.
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