Though a holy family is definitely a gift, the saints show us that all of us can find sanctity, whatever our family background.
Saints come from all sorts of families, from pious families and pagan families, from happily married parents and divorced parents and never-married parents. Still, those whose parents were never married can feel like outliers; parents raising children born out of wedlock may similarly need a reminder that there is no one path to holiness. Saints who were born to unmarried parents remind us of just how possible holiness is for all of us, whoever our parents are.
Bl. Eustochium of Padua (1444-1469) was born in scandal, her mother not only unwed but a nun. Raised by her father and an abusive stepmother, Eustochium began to show signs of demonic possession at a young age, at which her father returned her to the convent where she was born. When the bishop attempted to reform the convent, every one of the licentious nuns left in protest and were replaced by virtuous nuns. Though these women were hesitant to live with a woman of Eustochium’s parentage, the abbess allowed her to stay. She struggled against the devil for four more years (and was even accused of witchcraft); it’s likely that she was also suffering from mental illness, as she was inclined to self-harm, cutting herself with knives or needles though she was sometimes able to resist the temptation. Eventually Sr. Eustochium was delivered from all this and lived out her short life in peace.
St. Martin de Porres (1579-1639) was born out of wedlock to a white father and Black mother in Peru. He trained as a barber (which included learning medicine) and tried to enter the Dominican order but was denied because it was illegal there for a Black man to make vows. He entered as a volunteer instead and was so holy that his superior decided to defy the law and allow Martin to become a lay brother. He worked in the kitchen and the infirmary for the rest of his life, a healer and a miracle-worker who bilocated all over the world.
St. Louise de Marillac (1591-1660) was the illegitimate daughter of a widowed French aristocrat. Her mother died shortly after her birth and she was raised in her father’s house until his next wife sent Louise to boarding school when she was only four. When Louise was 12, her father died and her stepmother refused to continue paying her tuition; the nobleman’s daughter now had to fend for herself. Though she discerned a vocation to religious life, she had no dowry. Instead, Louise married a man whom she nursed through a chronic illness until his early death, after which Louise founded the Daughters of Charity to serve the poor.
Bl. Columba Kang Wan-suk (1761-1801) was born out of wedlock to a noble Korean family. After becoming a wife, and stepmother to Bl. Philip Hong Pil-ju, she became a Catholic and brought her stepson and her mother-in-law to Christ, along with her daughter. When her husband left her for a concubine, Columba made her home a hub of activity for the underground Church. She 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.
St. Joseph Mukasa Balikuddembe (1860-1885) was born in what is now Uganda, the product of an affair between his mother and her husband’s cousin. Mukasa’s biological father was forced to flee and he was raised by his mother and her husband. At 14, Mukasa became a page at the king’s court, where he heard the Gospel from missionaries and was baptized. Mukasa was elected leader of the Catholic community and was able to protect the young pages from the king’s predations until he was sentenced to death for objecting to an unjust execution.
Bl. Francisco de Paula Victor (1827-1905) was born into slavery in Brazil, his father unknown. When he discerned a priestly vocation, he had to fight against racism and the canonical impediment of his birth to unmarried parents. Mercifully, his bishop was willing to advocate for him on both counts and Rome allowed Victor to be ordained. Though he endured racism from his parishioners, he persisted and became a beloved (and holy) pastor.
Bl. Ulrika Franziska Nisch (1882-1913) was born to a German couple who hoped to marry but were prevented because of their poverty. When they became pregnant, though, all objections to their marriage were removed and they went on to have 10 more children. Franziska was raised by an aunt and grandmother until she was seven, at which point she was returned to her parents in order to be useful in a house now full of children. She was unable to adjust to her family and was returned to her aunt. Franziska went to work at 12 and later became a Sister. There, she worked in the kitchen; the other Sisters didn’t think much of her (in spite of her mystical visions) because she wasn’t of much use.
Bl. Lojze Grozde (1923-1943) was born out of wedlock to a Slovenian couple. Rejected by both his parents, he was raised by his maternal grandparents and an aunt. When Lojze’s mother married, Lojze’s stepfather regularly chased the little boy away. Lojze was tortured and martyred by Communists.