The Old Cloister

Author: Sr. Pauline Quinn OP

A Story of Blessed Margaret of Castello

Veritas Contest 2004

Nestled in the foothills about three hours north of Rome, Italy is the region of Umbria known as "terra di santi"... land of saints. St Francis of Assisi and St Clare are two of the more well known saints from this area of rolling hills and quaint villages. For the last eleven years, I've been making the trip from Rome to Citta di Castello, a charming old city in Umbria. Outside the old city walls is a modern development but inside the old city are cobble stone, narrow streets that look more like alleyways build small to accommodate foot and horse traffic of years past.

In the morning hours before the sun peeks over the roof tops, I can smell the aroma of fresh baked bread inner-mingled with the lingering smell of smoke from wood fires, stoked to warm the chill from heatless houses. As the old city comes to life, nuns fly by on their bicycles, veils flapping in the wind... children dashing off to school carrying brightly colored packs on their backs. Sleepy eyed shop keepers swing open their doors while the outdoor market sellers finish setting out their fruits and vegetables as the early morning buyers mingle here and there to study prices and what there is to buy for the day's meals.

In the central square, small groups ... mostly older men gather standing in circles talking among themselves, making gestures with their hands and all sorts of facial contortions as they talk about what interests them at the moment. Dogs scurry here and there greeting one another with licks and wags or bristled up hair, stiffening every muscle to challenge who the territory belonged to.

With streets so close together, it seems a necessity to greet each other with a friendly, "Buon giorno" most always accompanied with a nod of the head when we pass or greeting the shop keepers who stand in the door way waiting for customers to buy their merchandise.

Not far from the central piazza is the church of San Domenico, a large stone structure that was built in 1426 by Dominican fathers and brothers who arrived in the area in about 1270. Inside, nothing seems to have changed since it was built. The entrance is dwarfed by the eminence size of the roof which seems about one hundred feet high.

Above the front door, about seventy feet off the stone floor, is a large round window about seven feet in circumference. This is the main source of natural lighting, covered by milky glass that softens the light as it filters through the window into the church. Underneath the window and above the door entrance is a plain wooden cross that seems to be seven feet high.

There are eleven stained glass windows, each about twenty five feet high... four on each side of the length of the church and three in front... one very large window that is wider than the others and two on each side in little alcoves. The windows are strikingly beautiful with sharp, bright colors which illuminate in the dimly lit church from the outside sunlight. Each panel of stained glass shows a Dominican saint persevered in this beautiful gleaming light for us to remember.

In the largest stained glass window behind the altar is the story of the life of Blessed Margaret of Castello. Each pane of glass tells a story of her life. During the day, when the sun is over the roof tops, beams of light streak through the window showing blues, greens, reds, yellows that makes Margaret's story jump right into your heart when viewing it. Your eyes capture every moment that the windows are reflecting, to help you understand one life ... one little life that helped thousands by her example of compassion and holiness.

Who is this third order Dominican who died at age thirty-three and given the honor to be buried inside the church?

Blessed Margaret of Castello is known through out the world as the patron of the handicapped and the unwanted. Underneath the stone altar, encased in glass is her incorrupt body that is over 600 hundred years old.

Born in 1287 in the castle of the Metola, of noble parents, they were ashamed that she was blind as well as deformed.

Little Margaret’s parents were so afraid of what people thought of them to have such a deformed child that they told everyone that Margaret had died and they kept her hidden in the basement of their castle until she was six years old. When little Margaret's parents thought that they would be discovered that they had their child hidden, they took her to the forest and walled her up in a little cell that was attached to a church ... and there she stayed for fourteen years. The local priest taught her about God.

When war had broken out between the cities of Urbino and Citta di Castello, which was being fought in the hills surrounding the castle of Metola, Margaret's parents fled the castle, taking Margaret with them to Citta di Castello. They had heard that there was a Franciscan priest who had died and many miracles were being granted at his tomb. They hoped that through the Grace of God, a miracle would happen and Margaret would be cured.

When no miracle happened, they abandoned Margaret at the church then returned to their castle, never to see little Margaret again.

Margaret became a beggar to survive. The poor and the unwanted became her friends. Later, Margaret was adopted by a kindly peasant woman who had a large family of her own. Margaret's natural sweetness and goodness soon made themselves felt, and she more than repaid the family for their kindness to her. Margaret was an influence for all the children. She stopped their quarrels, heard their catechism, told them stories, taught them psalms and prayers. Busy neighbors were soon borrowing her to soothe a sick child or to establish peace in the house.

Margaret’s reputation for holiness was so great that a community of sisters in the town asked for her to become one of them. Margaret went happily to join them, but unfortunately, there was little fervor in the house. The little girl who was so prayerful and penitential was a reproach to their lax lives, so Margaret was returned to the family, who gladly welcomed her home.

Some years after this, Margaret was received as a Dominican Tertiary and clothed with the religious habit. The family home became the rendezvous of troubled souls who came seeking Margaret's prayers. She said the Office of the Blessed Virgin and the entire Psalter by heart and her prayers had the effect of restoring peace of heart to those who were troubled. Denied earthly sight, Margaret was favored with heavenly visions. "Oh, if you only knew what I have in my heart!" she said often. The mysteries of the Rosary, particularly the joyful mysteries, were so vivid to her that her whole person would light up when she described the scene. She was often in ecstasy, and, despite great joys and favors in prayer, she was often called up on to suffer desolation and interior trials of frightening sorts. The devil tormented her severely at times, but she triumphed over these sufferings.

A number of miracles were performed by Blessed Margaret. On one occasion, while she was praying in an upper room, the family house caught fire and she called to Margaret to come down. People called to her to throw her cloak on the flames. She did this and the blaze died out. At another time, she cured a sister who was losing her eyesight.

Even though Margaret was blind, she made her way through the city streets to visit prisoners and to help the poor. Extraordinary events that happened through Margaret were recorded by one person after another. Many miracles occurred that could not be explained except by the great devotion and love that Margaret had for God that was shown through favors granted to this little soul. She had steadfast courage and faithfulness to help others even though she herself was rejected.

Attached to the church of San Domenico is the old cloister where the Dominicans use to live and the garden where they walked in quiet to say their prayers. In the middle of the garden is a fountain with water trickling from a side ornament near the top of a three foot square stand in the center, with a potted plant on top. The water then falls into the fountain where Gold fish glide through the mossy water. There are beautiful Rose bushes that have large, fragrant buds of different colors that are just starting to open, while others have lost most of their pedals that are sprinkled here and there upon the weed covered grass, adding color to the lawn. Around the square garden is the long arched walk ways of the cloister which also goes in a large square with another walkway directly on top, about twenty five feet higher than the walkway on the bottom.

The Dominicans must have spent many long hours walking around the cloister in peaceful prayer. If you can free your imagination, you can still hear them chanting the Divine Office in the church of San Domenico that can be heard in the old cloister garden; back and forth ... one side chanting, then the other.

The once bright gold paint on the old cloister walls are fading. Sections of stone have chipped away from age. The paintings that depict Margaret's life that are high on the cloister walls are also fading away. Time ... that reality that we must all watch, slips by so quickly leaving only dust in its wake. Time has no favorites. It waits for no one.

The large bells of San Domenico toll; birds scatter into the air, their wings flapping with the sounds echoing off the cloister walls, repeated century after century. In the church of San Domenico, also buried in the cloister and down the street in the old Dominican cemetery, where houses now replace tomb stones, the bones of Dominicans who faithfully stayed to the end is what remains to remind us of those who never floundered in the midst of hardships. Their life must have been strenuous when you think that they had no modern heating, no washer and dryer ... only horses and their feet to move them from one village to another as they went out to preach about God to the people of the countryside.

Blessed Margaret’s body is often alone in the church of San Domenico. It isn't visited as much as the other churches in the area, yet what keeps her spirit alive are the young blind girls and women who now live at the old cloister. They walk, often in silence, around the garden not being able to see the old building that once housed so many Dominicans. But they can hear the trickling of the water into the fountain and they can smell the fragrance of the Roses as they pass them. They can hear the bells toll from San Domenico and hear the birds fly into the air.

The new name for the old cloister is "Blessed Margaret's school for the Blind" which is run by religious Sisters ... "Serve Di Maria Riparatrice" an Italian order of wonderful women who have promoted the life of Blessed Margaret, while caring for the blind.

For all these years I have come to this place to sit in the old cloister, listening to the water slowly drip into the fountain, waiting for the bells of San Domenico to toll. I feel the spirit of the Dominicans, trying to imagine them in their white robes, slowly moving in the cloister garden and under the archways, lit by moonlight and the flickering of candle light. I sit here thinking of the life of Blessed Margaret of Castello, her suffering, her courage, and her hope.

Years ago there would be no real meaning to any of this for me because I had no purpose. Now my life has changed. Blessed Margaret's life helped me find my purpose ... so I come here to the Old Cloister to reflect ... to try and understand the mystery of it all.

Blessed Margaret’s life is being spread by the Spirit, bringing hope and courage to people throughout the world. Her story is in Russian, Polish, Spanish and many other languages. Perhaps others will sit in an old Cloister, as I did, hearing the bells toll then think of the little Dominican, Blessed Margaret from Citta di Castello, who reached out to others in spite of her own pain and sorrow.

Veritas, 16 June 2004 / 2nd December 2010