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Divorce is always painful, and being divorced as a practicing Catholic can be terribly isolating. But while your friends from Bible Study may all be happily married, there are quite a few saints who went through divorce, for any number of reasons. If you’re feeling alone in this struggle, get to know some saints who have been in your shoes.
St. Fabiola of Rome (d. 392) was a Christian noblewoman in the Roman empire. Married to a cruel man, Fabiola left him and obtained a divorce. There was no sin in that, of course—the Church has always permitted spouses to separate in cases of abuse and adultery. But Fabiola chose to remarry, despite the clear teaching of Jesus, and spent many years away from the Church. When her second husband died, though, Fabiola did public penance and returned to the Church. To remove herself from the temptations of the world, she then sold all her property to build the first hospital in the West and was greatly admired by the curmudgeonly St. Jerome.
St. Gummarus (717-774) was a Belgian nobleman whose marriage to Guinmarie, an arrogant noblewoman, was arranged by the king. Guinmarie was abusive to the servants in Gummarus’ absence and refused to pay them; try though he might, he could never convince her to seek a relationship with Jesus, and after many years of fruitless effort the two separated. Gummarus then became a hermit and eventually founded an abbey.
St. Christina of Markyate (1096-1195) wasn’t ever actually married. At 15, she made a vow of virginity, but her parents refused to accept this and arranged a marriage for her. She went to the bishop for help, but he was bribed into ignoring her pleas and Christina was “married” against her will. But it’s impossible, of course, to be married against your will, whatever may seem to have happened. Christina was held captive for several years before escaping and running away to be a hermitess. After a few more years, her putative husband gave up and obtained an annulment on the grounds that Christina had clearly never given her consent. Cristina went on to be a mystic and an abbess.
Bl. Serafina Sforza (1432-1478) was married at 16 to Alexander, a widower with two children. When Alexander went to war, he left her in charge of all his affairs. But when he returned, Alexander began an affair, forced Serafina to live as a servant, and set his mistress up in her place. When she humbly submitted to such treatment, her holiness spurred him to a rage that led to several murder attempts. At this, Seraphina stopped attempting to reconcile with her husband and retired to her own quarters for a life of prayer. Alexander finally ejected Seraphina from the house and forced her to go live with the Poor Clares. Seraphina prayed continuously for Alexander’s conversion but finally felt led to abandon hope that he would change. She was received into the Poor Clares and took vows as a nun. Some time later, Alexander repented and asked Serafina to return but she declined. He lived a solitary life of penance and preceded her in death. She continued a saintly life as a nun and eventually an abbess.
Bl. Columba Kang Wan-Suk (1761-1801) was a Korean convert to Christianity who brought her stepson and mother-in-law to Christ. Her husband, on the other hand, ridiculed her faith and ultimately left her for a concubine. Columba may have been dismayed by this turn of events (at least out of concern for his soul), but it proved providential. It was illegal for noble homes owned by women to be searched by the authorities. With her husband gone, Columba’s house became a hub of underground activity. Columba spent the rest of her life an evangelist and a catechist, the protector of Korea’s one (hunted) priest, and the heart of her community, before being martyred at age 40.
St. Dominic Ninh (1835-1862) was a Vietnamese farmer urged into marriage by his parents. Dominic and his wife were a terrible match and soon separated. Dominic then lived as a celibate, devoting himself to the study of the Chinese language until he was expelled from his village and ultimately arrested and martyred.
Servant of God Catherine Doherty (1896-1985) was a Russian noblewoman who married her first cousin and served as a nurse in World War I before fleeing Russia during the Russian Revolution. The couple made their way to Canada, and though he was adulterous and abusive, they had a son together. Not long after, Catherine left him, later becoming a Catholic and obtaining an annulment. She and her son moved to New York where Catherine worked with the poor and fought for interracial justice. She married at 47 and, with her husband, founded a community called Madonna House that still exists today.
The painting that sparked a devotion to “Mary, Undoer of Knots” was about a divorce that didn’t happen