Saint Catherine of Alexandria

According to tradition, Catherine was the daughter of Constus, the governor of Alexandria in Egypt during the reign of the emperor Maximian (286-305). Catherine was reputed to be very learned and following her experience of a vision of the Virgin Mary and the Child Jesus she became a Christian. (Her first name was actually Dorothea, acquiring the name Catherine at her baptism).

The reign of Maximian and his son Maxentius 11 (306-312) was a time of great political turbulence during which Christians were persecuted. Catherine protested the persecution of Christians to the Emperor and was herself imprisoned as a consequence. The Emperor sent scholars to dispute with her, to undermine her beliefs, but they failed. The Emperor’s wife, Valeria Maximilla herself, visited her and subsequently declared herself a Christian together with a number of soldiers who were guarding Catherine. They were all subsequently put to death.

In prison Catherine was scourged and deprived of food and sentenced to death. The spiked wheel by which she was to be killed, from which the term Catherine wheel is derived, is reputed to have broken when she touched it, so she was subsequently beheaded. The Emperor Maxentius was himself defeated in battle by the Constantine at the Battle of Milvian Bridge (312) and died by drowning in the River Tiber.

After her death the legend arose that her body was transported by angels to the highest mountain in the Sinai desert which now bears her name. Again legend has it that her body was discovered there around the year 800. In the 6th century, the Easter Emperor Justinian had founded a monastery in the Sinai desert. It was to this monastery, now named St Catherine’s monastery, that Catherine’s remains were moved and where they are now to be found in a golden casket in the monastery church. St Catherine’s monastery, one of the oldest monasteries in the world , became a destination for pilgrims, but it was very difficult to reach. Subsequently some of her relics were acquired by the newly founded monastery of the Holy Trinity in Rouen in 1030s. The Normans promoted the saints cult in Europe which they then brought to England following the conquest.

St Catherine of Alexandria became one of the most important saints in the church in the late middle ages, along with other virgin martyrs such as Agnes of Rome. She was known as a powerful intercessor and many churches were dedicated to her both in England and in France. Documents in St Catherine’s monastery record her feast day as being 25th November. So it is on that day that her feast appears in the General Roman Calendar as an optional memorial.

Let us praise the all-lauded and noble bride of Christ,
the godly Catherine, the guardian of Sinai and its defense,
who is also our support and succor and our help;
for with the Holy Spirit’s power she has silenced brilliantly the clever among the godless; and being crowned as a martyr, she now does ask great mercy for us all.
( Chant from the Greek liturgy for the Feast of St Catherine of Alexandria).

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