Saint of the Day – 16 August – Saint Ugolina of Vercelli (c 1239-c 1300) Virgin, Anchorite Recluse, Penitent, Spiritual advisor. The very strange story that of this Blessed Ugolina who shut herself in a hermitage, representing herself as a man and remained there for forty-seven years! The aim of her subterfuge was to escape the aims of her father, who wished her to marry. In order not to reveal her secret, she called herself Ugo without revealing her identity to anyone. for nearly fifty years. In the hermitage she grew in faith and prayer. When she died then it became known that she was a woman and it was possible to reconstruct her story in the midst of everyone’s surprise and admiration.
The first biographer of St.Ugolina, who wrote immediately after her death, was the Dominican Confessor Father Valentino. These important memories, already unavailable in the 18th century, are cited by the Franciscan, Ludovico della Croce who, consulting them, wrote in the mid-17th century what is today the oldest biography. Unfortunately, the work has the main purpose of handing down the virtues and not the historical information on this Saint, whose life is similar to other figures that arose in the Middle Ages, in imitation of the eastern anchorites.
Ugolina was born in Vercelli in 1239, in the noble and wealthy De Cassami family (or De Cassinis, according to recent studies). Her coming into the world was a grace for the pious parents who saw in her, an only child, a precious gift and surrounded her with thoughtful care.
At the age of ten, she admirably exercised charity towards his neighbour, the constant practice of personal and community prayer and perfect adherence to the teachings of her parents. She had a great love for pilgrims, who were numerous in those times. When she learned that the destination was the Holy Land, her interest became intense, giving them food and money for the journey.
The first great test for the young woman came when she was only fourteen years old – the one who had physically generated her and who had formed her spirit according to the noblest Christian sentiments ,died. So she stayed with her father who, unfortunately, only briefly curbed the urge to seduce her. The most horrendous of family crimes was thus about to be consummated, in that once happy home. The Lord did not abandon Ugolina who, with good manners and, above all with prayer, managed to lead her father back to the right path. The family balance, however, was compromised and Ugolina matured the vocation that she already felt in her heart. The only confidant was a woman named Libera, to whom she manifested the desire to serve Christ with prayer, living withdrawn from the world. Libera told her to ponder the decision thoroughly, waiting for a heavenly sign. Ugolina decided that she would carry out the escape when her father was absent for business and this happened the very next day, when the parent went to Turin. Wearing men’s clothes and a hood, the maiden left the palace.
The extraordinary and dangerous inspiration led her to a wood, a mile away from the City, where the Chapel of St Mary of Bethlehem stood. Next to it was the cell, now empty, of a hermit named Favorino who, on his return from the Holy Land, had built that hermitage to live in holiness. Ugolina decided that it would be her new home.
For forty-seven years, pretending to be a man named Ugone, she lived with the bare necessities, in prayer, between intense talks with God and penances to fight the temptations that certainly were not lacking.
The distance from the City was ,however, short and, therefore ,the Chapel became a point of reference for the whole surrounding area, a place of prayer, comfort, advice, for people of different social classes. Ugolina communicated, without showing her face, through a small window. Only the Confessor and confidant ,Libera, knew who that anchorite really was.
The ancient biographer gives us a singular fact. A poor widow from Vercelli, heavily harassed by the City’s evil Procurator, asked Ugolina for help, who exceptionally let her into her cell. At midnight the following day, in the Chapel next door, an Angel comforted them by telling them that the persecutor would pay for his misdeeds. Shortly thereafter he was in fact condemned. The woman kept the secret, then went every day to see her. So many years passed, until Ugolina’s health declined – stomach upsets and fevers forced her to bed. A few days before her death she called Father Valentino for general Confession and Holy Communion. She died on 16 August c 1300.
The news quickly spread around the City. The Priest went to the Bishop, Aimone di Challant, who was already informed of the facts. In solemn procession, with the clergy and the people, he wanted to pay homage to her. Ugolina, on a poor bed, rested in the peace of the Lord, with the side of the Crucifix, which she held in her hands, resting on her mouth. The Bishop, moved, knelt down and kissed her hands. All the people paraded in front of the body, finally discovering that she was the daughter of the rich De Cassami.
According to her will, she was buried in the cell, then, subsequently, in the Church. The tomb became a destination for pilgrims, often miraculous. She was a Saint by popular acclaim, with a feast on 8 August. In 1453 the Franciscans erected an important Convent next to the Church, called St Maria di Billiemme (from Bethlehem), continuing their devotion to the Saint.
The Chapel, with its ribbed vaults, was exquisitely frescoed in the 16th century, while the cell was destroyed in the siege of 1704. In 1996 the centuries-old presence of the Franciscans ceased, taken over by the Marianist Fathers.