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Saints who struggled with their in-laws

Daphrose Rugamba

Karel Dekempe | CC BY-SA 3.0

Meg Hunter-Kilmer - published on 05/22/21

The blending of two families through marriage can bring a lot of problems. These saints can help.

For all that the “overbearing mother-in-law” is a hackneyed stereotype, relationships with in-laws aren’t always easy. If you struggle to get along with your in-laws, these saints who’ve been there can intercede for you—and (on occasion) help you see how much worse things could be.

St. Pulcheria (399-453) was the oldest child of the emperor of Byzantium. She ruled as regent for her brother Theodosius until he came of age, then ruled alongside him as Augusta (empress). When Theodosius’ envious new wife Eudokia arrived, she made Pulcheria’s life miserable, ultimately contriving to have her sister-in-law sent away. Eventually Eudokia was accused of adultery and left Constantinople. She spent some years as a heretic before being reconciled with Pulcheria and the Church and retiring to a life of prayer; some traditions consider her a saint. Meanwhile, Pulcheria was recalled to court, where she again ruled as empress even after her brother’s death.

St. Ethelbert of East Anglia (d. 794) would have become a religious if he hadn’t been heir to the crown of East Anglia (in modern England). Even after he was crowned, he wanted to remain celibate, but was urged to marry in order to cement a political alliance. Ethelbert consented to wed St. Althryda. Althryda was a pious young woman, but she was a pawn in her father’s political game. Many supernatural signs failed to warn Ethelbert away from Althryda. Instead, he journeyed to Mercia, to the home of King Offa, Althryda’s father, where he was murdered at Offa’s command.

St. Jane Frances de Chantal (1572-1641) was blissfully happy in her marriage to a French baron until his accidental death left her a 28-year-old widow with four small children. Into her deep depression came a letter from her father-in-law threatening to disinherit her children if Jane didn’t move with them into his home. Seeing no other choice, Jane uprooted her family to live with her cruel and demanding father-in-law and his mistress. She lived there with her children for seven years. Finally, she arranged for the needs of her now adolescent children and (under the direction of St. Francis de Sales) founded the Visitation Sisters.

Blessed Lucy Yun Un-Hye (d. 1801) was a Korean woman married to Bl. Barnabas Jeong Gwang-su. Barnabas’ non-Christian parents opposed their son’s marriage to a believer and even managed to prevent it for some time. Even after this failed, they refused to allow the newlyweds to practice their faith and demanded that they take part in traditional ancestor worship. Realizing that they would never be free to live their faith while among Barnabas’ family, the couple moved away and became successful evangelists and catechists, working together to bring people to Jesus. They made religious objects, taught catechism classes, transcribed religious books, and organized prayer meetings until both were martyred.

St. Ignatius Kim Che-jun (1796-1839) was the father of St. Andrew Kim Tae-gon (the first Korean priest) and the grandson of the martyr Blessed Pius Kim Jin-hu. When his son Andrew was chosen to go abroad and study for the priesthood, Ignatius knew the risk his family would be taking in supporting Andrew’s vocation. But he consented and paid the price. He was betrayed by a son-in-law and arrested for his faith. Though he apostatized under torture, he later repented, recanted his apostasy, and was beheaded for his faith.

Blessed Gaetana Sterni (1827-1889) was an Italian woman who married a widower with three children. He died while she was pregnant with their firstborn, and when their baby died a few days after birth, her in-laws took Gaetana’s three stepchildren from her and banished her to her mother’s house, permanently estranged from the children she had loved as a mother. She spent the rest of her life in service, first to her family and then to the sick and the dying. With a few companions, she founded a religious order called the Daughters of the Divine Will.

Servant of God Daphrose Rugamba (1944-1994) was a Rwandan Catholic woman married to an atheist (Servant of God Cyprien Rugamba) who later had a conversion. Daphrose lost her first child to miscarriage, but after her second was born healthy her in-laws convinced her husband that Daphrose was involved in the occult. Cyprien accused her of witchcraft and repudiated her, sending her to her family home and keeping the baby with him. After eight months, Cyprien realized the untruth of the rumors of black magic and brought his wife home, but it was many years of strife (and infidelity) before the two found real healing. They were martyred in the Rwandan genocide.

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