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Saints who had children out of wedlock

Margaret of Cortona

Public Domain

Meg Hunter-Kilmer - published on 05/01/21

These holy men and women can remind us that God's grace is at work, whatever the circumstances.

Just as there are saints who were conceived out of wedlock, there are saints who conceived children outside of the bonds of marriage. These saints can inspire those who find themselves unexpectedly pregnant, reassuring them that God’s grace is at work whatever their circumstances, that they (and their children) are called to be great saints. Those who seek God’s grace know that his mercy is able to transform and heal every failing, every trauma, every broken heart.

St. Theneva (6th century) was the Welsh daughter of a pagan king. Theneva had heard the Gospel proclaimed by missionaries, and when she found herself to be pregnant, vowed that she was as much a virgin as the Blessed Mother. A very early biography suggests that perhaps she had been raped while unconscious, perhaps due to alcohol; another early account says that she was assaulted by a cousin who was dressed as a woman who gaslit her afterward, insisting that he hadn’t lain with her as a man does a woman. Regardless, Theneva’s father was unconvinced and ordered her to be thrown from a cliff for her alleged crime. When she survived, she was set adrift on the sea; she landed near the community of St. Serf, where she raised her son who grew up to be St. Kentigern (also known as St. Mungo).

St. Margaret of Cortona (1247-1297) was the Italian mistress of a rich man. She became the mother of his child, but when their son was still quite young, his father was murdered. Margaret was devastated not just by his death but by her concern for his soul; she repented of her sins and attempted to return home with her son, but was turned away by her stepmother. Margaret found a home in town with two other women and there she raised her son, who later became a friar. She became a third order Franciscan and a spiritual advisor to many, but continued to endure slanderous accusations because of her past. 

St. Andrew Wouters (1542-1572) was a Dutch priest who was notorious for riotous living, a drunkard who had fathered several illegitimate children. So intransigent was he that his bishop finally suspended him, leaving him in utter disgrace at only 30 years old. But when Calvinist pirates began arresting priests, Wouters sought them out, presenting himself to them as a priest despite his suspension. For over two weeks, he was tortured and ridiculed for his past, but Wouters refused to accept their argument that such a man as he must surely be willing to abandon his faith. “Fornicator I always was; heretic I never was,” he said, and was martyred amidst much mockery.

St. Michael Hồ Đình Hy (1808-1857) was born to a high-ranking Catholic family in Vietnam and married a Catholic woman. But though he continued to practice his faith, he took a mistress and fathered three children out of wedlock. He had his children baptized and continued to practice the faith, but Michael’s life was a betrayal of his convictions. Ultimately he repented and became a man of great charity. Still his weakness remained; when arrested, he gave up the names of 29 Christians. Again he repented and was able to go to confession in prison before being martyred.

St. Bruno Sserunkuuma (~1856-1886) was a Ugandan convert who was disappointed to find that Baptism hadn’t magically removed his inclinations to sin. When the king gave him two young women as a sort of prize, Sserunkuuma’s attempts at chastity went out the window. He took them both as his wives (though neither was a valid marriage) and soon one of the women was pregnant. Mercifully, Sserunkuuma’s friends St. Charles Lwanga and St. Andrew Kaggwa were disturbed at his behavior and confronted him, issuing fraternal correction so convicting that Sserunkuuma separated from both women and made a good confession. Though he wasn’t known to be a Christian, when the persecution of Christians began, he confessed that he was a Christian and was burned to death.

Servant of God Dorothy Day (1897-1980) was an American Communist who lived a lifestyle typical of her peers, including a series of sexual partners, an abortion, and a suicide attempt. She later saw all this as evidence of her heart’s frustrated longing for God, a longing that wasn’t muted by the happiness she ultimately found in a common law marriage and the birth of her daughter. She began attending Mass and decided to have her child baptized, decisions that her partner reviled and which ultimately led to their separation. After her conversion, Dorothy founded the Catholic Worker movement, a movement of solidarity with the poor in which she raised her daughter Tamar. A powerful activist who was several times arrested and even shot at for her work against racism, Dorothy found her strength in daily Mass and a commitment to contemplative prayer. 

Servant of God Cyprien Rugamba (1935-1994) was a Rwandan former seminarian who had lost his faith completely before marrying his wife, Servant of God Daphrose Rugamba. Though Daphrose was a faithful Catholic, Cyprien was a philanderer who had multiple affairs. When he fathered a child with another woman, Daphrose took that child into their home to be raised as one of her own. For nearly 20 years, Daphrose prayed for her husband’s conversion. Finally, as he lay at death’s door, Cyprien had a sudden conversion and looked up to see his wife beside him. He was healed and begged Daphrose’s forgiveness, which she gladly gave. The next 12 years of their marriage were beautiful and joyful, until the couple was killed (with six of their children) in the opening days of the Rwandan genocide.

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