Above: The head of St. Catherine sits in the Basilica of San Domenico in Siena, Italy, not far from a crystal case that contains her thumb. Catholics revere the 14th-century saint for her visions of Jesus, life of prayer and service to the poor. Photo by Giovanni Cerretani via Wikipedia
It was a 620-year-old thumb-under-glass that sent lifelong Catholic and Pasadena resident Mary Lea Carroll on her quest to understand more fully the lives of four “lady saints,” two Virgins and an iconic statue attributed with miraculous powers.
Twenty years ago, Carroll wandered into the 12th-century Basilica of San Domenico in Siena, Italy, and saw what she describes as “a stub of charcoal sporting a fingernail.” It was a thumb — now a relic — that once belonged to St. Catherine of Siena.
“Who are you?” Carroll wondered at the time, and “Hello — why hasn’t your thumb turned to dust?”
(A quick pause here for an explanation of relics, which, in the Catholic world, are either bodily parts, clothing or something used extensively by holy persons (saints) or Jesus. Centuries ago, cities competed for the best relics, which were magnets for pilgrims and their spending power. Relics are still revered by many today.)
Carroll’s encounter with the thumb (St. Catherine’s head is in the same church) eventually sent the author in pursuit of more information.
“This path started by accident when I saw the relic of St. Catherine,” Carroll explained in a phone call from her Pasadena home. “I wanted to know about the woman whose thumb is still here after 600 years. I couldn’t help but be amazed by what I learned. Then it occurred to me that a lot of places that I travel may have amazing women attached.”
Carroll has always loved to travel.
“I used to be a trip escort, then had a family, so that clipped my wings for a couple of decades,” she said. Once her three daughters were grown, “the desire to travel came back.”
In researching various saints, however, Carroll found that “everything was very dated, written a long time ago or very pious. It didn’t apply to women of today. I felt that I could write more vibrantly about them.”
And that she did in “Saint Everywhere: Travels in Search of the Lady Saints” (Prospect Park Books). Included are the biographies and accomplishments St. Catherine of Siena; St. Theresa of Avila, Spain; and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and St. Frances Xavier Cabrini of New York City.
Carroll also wrote about her journeys to Medjugorje, Bosnia, where she learned about the Virgin known as Our Lady of Peace, and to Mexico City, where Our Lady of Guadalupe is revered.
One visit in 2009 to Prague brought an encounter with “well, not a saint but a statue” — the famous Infant of Prague. The statue is a 16th-century doll in the likeness of the Baby Jesus that is ensconced in a gloomy, ancient church in the capital of the Czech Republic. The Infant, like the saints and the Virgin, is credited with miracles and spiritual inspiration of Catholics worldwide.
When Carroll entered the church, she writes, her state of anxiety was high. She deeply felt the lack of physical and mental health and thought, “Shoot, why not give all of (my anxieties) to Him right now?”
“(I) sat on that bench and prayed as hard as I could,” she writes.
“The instant I completed the prayer, a relief … came over me. It was small but real. The crazy random anxiety went away.”
Carroll’s favorite saint?
Frances Xavier Cabrini, whom she “met” while living in New York City. An Italian immigrant, Cabrini was the first naturalized American citizen to be named a saint. She ministered to poor Italian immigrants in crowded Manhattan at the end she created 67 institutions — orphanages, schools, hospitals and clinics.
“The reports of her personality were appealing to me,” Carroll said. “She reminds me of my sister who held yard sales. Mother Cabrini could wheel and deal. She was extremely colorful.”
The lives of “lady saints” has made Carroll more aware that “there are wonderful women everywhere — maybe in the house next door — lifting our world,” she said. “Maybe my next book will be “Saint Somewhere.”
Carroll’s book is available at Barnes & Noble and Amazon. Audio book also available. Visit www.maryleacarroll.com.
E’Louise Ondash is a veteran, award-winning journalist who was an investigative reporter, feature writer and columnist for the Times Advocate and the North County Times. She has written travel features for The Coast News since 2003.