Santa Margherita da Cortona
The year is 1247; the village is Laviano, a small rural community located in Umbria, in the valley between the Tuscan town of Montepulciano and Lake Trasimeno. Margherita was born to a poor family. Her mother died when she was eight years old and her father remarried and had more children with his second wife.
The second wife hated Margherita, and as a result Margherita was pushed aside and totally neglected. After running away from home at the age of sixteen, Margherita met Arsenio Del Pecora, a young man from a wealthy, respectable and aristocratic family in the town of Montepulciano. He was ten years older than her, and drawn to her beauty and spirit. They decided she would take up residence with him at his parents’ home. However, the members of the family were not keen on welcoming a member of the lower classes planning on living with their son without being married.
Their disapproval notwithstanding Margherita stayed in the house, became pregnant and eventually bore a son. Margherita lived a life of luxury, banquets and trips, and there was no doubt in the minds of everybody in the town that she was the wife of the most desirable and popular member of the aristocratic community of Montepulciano in Tuscany. She was instrumental in organizing cultural and social events in the region, and became the most beloved citizen of the town; except to Arsenio’s family.
In 1273, after nine years of happiness and wealth, Arsenio mysteriously died while hunting in Petrignano del Lago, an agricultural village which belonged to his family near Lake Trasimeno. Arsenio’s loyal dog ran all the way home and summoned Margherita who followed the dog to the dead body.
The next tragedy that befell Margherita was that her dead lover’s family drove her and her son out of their home. The most popular socialite of the community suddenly became a homeless wanderer, as even her own father refused to take her back. She was forced to sell her body in order to survive. In despair, and as a last resort, Margherita decided to relocate to the city of Cortona, and to settle in a recently founded Franciscan Order. She befriended two monks, Giovanni de Castiglione and Fra Giunta Bevegnati, who guided her and counseled her to live a new life.
In 1277 Margherita entered the Franciscan Third Order where she devoted her life to prayer, repentance and acts of charity. In 1278, Margherita founded an order called Ordine delle Poverelle to help poor women. She also founded a hospital near the Church of San Basilio and an association called Santa Maria della Misericordia for women who dedicated their lives to the care of the poor.
Margherita died on February 22, 1297. Her body was embalmed, dressed in clothes embroidered with gold thread, and buried in the Basilica of San Basilio. In 1728 Pope Benedict XIII raised her status to that of sainthood. When the church was completed in 1887, she was re-interred in a glass coffin, lying on her back with her arms crossed wearing the same shoes and clothes she had worn since her death.