Saint of the Day – 20 January – St Eustochia Smeraldo Calafato OSC (1434-1485) Nun of the Second Franciscan Order of the Poor Clares, Reformer, Founder of a reformed Monastery, Abbess, Ascetic born of her devotion to the Passion of Christ and the Holy Eucharist – born on 25 March (Good Friday) 1434 at Annunziata, Messina, Italy as Smerelda Colonna and died on 20 January 1491 at Messina, Sicily, Italy. Patronage – Messina, Italy. Additional commemoration – 22 August in Messina.
In Messina, in the ancient monumental Church of the Monastery of Montevergine, lies the body of Santa Eustochia Smeralda. Her body has remained incorrupt by a miracle of the Lord, for five centuries, burnished by time, with her right hand with her fingers contracted in perpetual blessing, she watches over the city and the flourishing monastery you founded.
Saint Eustochia was born with the name “Smeralda” (or ‘Esmeralda’ which means ‘emerald’) on 25 March 1434 in Messina, Italy. She was the fourth of six children. Smeralda’s mother was a fervent Christian and enthusiastic admirer of the Franciscan religious order, particularly of the reformers who insisted on following closely the life of St Francis, especially by embracing poverty.
The reform’s first monastery was established in Messina by Blessed Matthew of Agrigento. He inspired a renewal of faith in the people of Messina by his ardent preaching and way of life. Smeralda’s mother had attended one of Blessed Matthew’s sermon’s as an eighteen-year-old bride and devoted her life to prayer, penance and helping those in need. Thus, Smeralda was raised from childhood to exercise Christian piety and virtue, eventually exceeding her mother’s greatest hopes and expectations for her daughter.
Smeralda was beautiful both inside and out, she is thought to be the model for the painting The Virgin of the Annunciation by Antonello da Messina (seen here on the below). When she was fourteen years old, Smeralda wanted to become a Poor Clare nun but her father arranged marriage for her to an older, wealthy widower. Smeralda kept her hope in religious life and the widower died before the wedding. Her father again arranged a marriage for his daughter but that man also died, followed by Smeralda’s father himself. When she entered the convent of Santa Maria di Basico, her brothers threatened to burn it down if she did not return home, which she did. But seeing her great desire, they experienced a change of heart. She finally entered and took her vows, with the name Eustochia, at fifteen-and-a-half years old.
Unfortunately, Eustochia came to discover that the convent had drifted away from the poverty lived by their foundress, St Clare of Assisi. For more than a decade, Eustochia struggled to be an authentic Franciscan in the materialistic atmosphere. She received papal permission to establish a new convent but found resistance to her reforms. Some friars refused to say Mass at the convent, believing that the sisters’ lifestyle was too strict. Eustochia appealed directly to Church authorities in Rome, who approved of Mother Eustochia’s renewal of Franciscan asceticism and poverty. The friars who had refused to assist at the convent were threatened with excommunication should they continue to resist.
Eustochia’s holiness drew many women to her community – so many that they soon outgrew the building and moved to Montevergine, near Messina, where their convent still stands. The local people considered Eustochia their patron and protector and the cloister to be a place of refuge—especially during the earthquakes that rocked the area.
Eustochia was a spiritual mother to her daughters, instructing, educating and training them in the Franciscan life, encouraging them to meditate on the Passion of Christ. She often led them in two-hour Scripture study sessions. Eustochia conveyed to her nuns the fruits of asceticism and lovingly infused into their hearts the virtues which she herself practised with admirable constancy and heroism. She taught them to permeate their whole lives with a simple and generous Franciscan spirituality, focusing on their Beloved Suffering Christ, to devote themselves to the Eucharist and to draw all necessary strength and nourishment for daily meditation from an intense, liturgical life.
Eustochia’s love of Jesus in poverty and penance was outstanding. She wrote a treatise on the Passion, which, unfortunately, is now lost. Though she never visited the Holy Land, Eustochia had a devotion to the holy places that is reminiscent of Saint Bridget of Sweden . In fact, she had one of the first sets of the Stations of the Cross (as we know them today) constructed within her convent.
As she lay on her deathbed, Eustochia spoke to her daughters, who had gathered around her, about the Passion of Christ. She spoke for an hour before passing to her final rest on 20 January 1485.
A few days after her burial, Eustochia’s tomb and body manifested extraordinary phenomena and many people received powerful graces through her intercession. The sisters wrote a biography of their revered mother and founder. She was Beatified on 22 June 1987 and Canonised on 11 June 1988 by St Pope John Paul II.
Her incorrupt body rests in the Sanctuary of Montevergine in Messina, the monastery which she established and can be visited twice a week.
In his homily, John Paul II said of St Eustochia:
“Learning assiduously in the school of Christ Crucified, she grew in knowledge of Him and, meditating on the splendid mysteries of grace, she conceived a faithful love for Him. For our saint, the cloistered life was not a mere flight from the world in order to take refuge in God. Through the severe penance which she imposed upon herself, she certainly wanted to be united to Christ, gradually eliminating whatever in her, as in every human person, was fallen, at the same time, she felt united to all. From her cell in the monastery of Montevergine she extended her prayer and the value of her penances to the whole world. In such a way she wanted to be near to each brother and sister, alleviate every suffering, ask pardon for the sins of all.”
The Body of the Holy Founder is venerated by crowds of devotees, who rely on her intercession to obtain the graces they dream of, while the valid protection of the Saint for the city, especially during public calamities, is officially recognised. The highest city authorities, still today, in fact, meet in the Church of Montevergine on the occasion of the festivities of 22 August of each year, in fulfilment of an ancient vote of the Senate of Messina, to attend the Divine Sacrifice, pay homage to the illustrious Eustachia.
One of the miracles in the history of the Saint is linked to this particular protection. It was the year 1615 and the city was struck, night and day, by appalling earthquakes, so much so that the authorities and the people implored the intercession of the Saint in Montevergine, inviting the nuns to pray for this purpose. The Poor Clares removed the Body from the oratory, where they keep it and placed it in the choir, in its old stall.
As the evening prayers were about to begin, the body which has been incorrupt for almost two centuries suddenly parted its lips, intoning the first line of a psalm from the Office, which the nuns, terrified and moved, continued crying, especially when the body intoned the “Gloria Patri.” From that moment the earthquakes ended.
To the constant protection of the city, is added her uninterrupted presence among her spiritual Daughters, who receive clear and unequivocal signs, with which the Saint manifests her will, warns them about what is about to happen. So it can be said that, even after her death, she continues to be the abbess of the monastery.