Peggy Haslar writes from Colorado where she is a counselor of young children in a rural, high poverty school. She blogs at Sparrowfare: Seed-Searches Among the Stones.
Gracing the map of the planet Venus are the names of a host of famous women, selected by the International Astronomical Union for marking the planet’s craters when the Magellan spacecraft began mapping the Evening Star’s surface. The roster includes a number of Catholic women of notable accomplishment. Among them are seven inspiring examples worth celebrating and sharing during Women’s History Month.
1. Sigrid Undset — Norwegian Catholic Convert, Nobel Laureate
Sigrid Undset (1882-1949) received the Nobel Prize in Literature for Kristin Lavransdatter, the medieval trilogy set in her homeland.
Undset’s life is also a compelling drama. Raised without religion, progressive schooling left her unsatisfied and curious. When she was a young woman, Undset began writing fiction inspired by the lives of co-workers in the office where she was employed as a secretary.
When she turned to writing fiction set in medieval Norway, Undset researched the lives of the saints and she was drawn to the Catholic faith. She was received into the Church in 1924, a decision that drew much ire in a country whose state church was Lutheran.
Undset fled Norway after the Nazis invaded her homeland. She lived in a Brooklyn apartment until after the war, writing and speaking in America as a Catholic opponent of Hitler.
Her final book, written after her return to Norway, is a biography of St. Catherine of Siena.
2. Flannery O’Connor — American Southern Fiction Writer
Flannery O’Connor’s Complete Stories won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1972. Her books Wise Blood, The Violent Bear It Away and A Good Man Is Hard to Find profoundly impacted the American southern writing tradition.
Born in Savannah, Georgia, O’Connor (1925-1964) would hone her craft at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and at Yaddo, the arts community in Saratoga Springs, New York. She returned to Georgia and wrote for the remainder of her days at the family’s Milledgeville estate, living with her mother while learning to cope with the debilitating illness lupus.
O’Connor kept to a schedule that included daily Mass, rest and writing fiction, essays and letters. Deft at exposing the judgmental heart, O’Connor draws on bizarre circumstances and grotesque southern images that lead readers to penetrating moments of “dark grace.”
3. Maria Montessori — Italy’s Innovative Educator and Physician
Maria Montessori (1870-1952) developed an approach to teaching that became a worldwide movement in early childhood education.
Montessori was a barrier breaker from an early age. When she was only 13 she entered an all-male technical institute to study engineering. Later, she applied herself to medicine and became one of Italy’s first female physicians.
Montessori then immersed herself in the philosophy of education and developed a child-centered approach to learning that still influences early childhood theory. Her methods were foundational in the creation of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd and Montessori schools now exist in over 110 countries across the globe.
4. Philosopher Elena Cornaro Piscopia — First Woman in the World to Receive a Ph.D.
Elena Cornaro Piscopia’s brilliance was evident from an early age. Piscopia (1646-1684) became fluent in multiple languages as a child and she studied mathematics, music, astronomy, philosophy and theology. She produced translations and original works of devotion and philosophy.
Professors, students, senators and guests from three universities attended the 1678 Padua Cathedral ceremony where Lady Elena received the first doctorate ever bestowed on a woman.
Revered throughout Europe for her intellect and virtue, Lady Elena was also a Benedictine oblate who spent her final years in charitable work.
5. Queen Isabella — Servant of God
Castilian Queen Isabella (1451-1504) and her husband Ferdinand of Aragon united Spain and elevated the country to a world power. The two financed the exploration of Christopher Columbus. Isabella proved a strong ruler who enacted many reforms, some of which remain controversial.
Yet Isabella was also a penitent who spent hours in prayer for her family and country. She opposed the enslavement of the natives discovered in Columbus' expedition, though her principles had little effect in her own lifetime. The queen lived moderately despite her great wealth and her confessor noted “her purity of heart... and the grandness of her soul.”
Isabella was recognized by the Church as a Servant of God in 1974.
6. Dame Edith Sitwell — Poet, Literary Critic, Catholic Convert
British poet Dame Edith Sitwell (1887-1964) converted to Catholicism in 1955, with novelist Evelyn Waugh as her godfather.
Sitwell’s powers as a poet grew during World War II, and “London Blitz” is her most famous poem. Her “Three Poems of the Atomic Age” addressed the dangers of scientism at a time when scientific advances were revealing new potential for destruction and dehumanization.
Sitwell’s work received wide acclaim during her lifetime and in 1954 she was created Dame of the British Empire.
7. Élisabeth Louise Vigée-Lebrun — 18th-Century French Painter
Élisabeth Louise Vigée-Lebrun (1755-1842) is generally considered the most famous woman painter of the 18th century. She is best known for self-portraits revealing the various stages of her womanhood and for her portraits of Marie Antoinette.
Vigée-Lebrun was a Catholic who staunchly supported the monarchy during the French Revolution. After the royal family’s arrest, she fled to Italy with her daughter. She lived in Austria and Russia before returning home, joining in and learning from each arts community. Her husband was imprisoned briefly before she was able to return to France.
Vigée-Le Brun supported herself as a portrait artist, but her loyalty to the monarchy cost her public approval. It was only after her death that her works were given place in major museums and received the acclaim they have today. Vigée-Le Brun’s portrait of painter Hugo Roberts is now at the Louvre.
These accomplished women aren’t the only Catholics whose names landed on Venus, but the list illustrates an important fact: Catholics over the centuries have created cultures in which women could rise to high levels of accomplishment in a wide variety of fields.
Of course, each of these women aimed for a higher and more lasting destiny than landing on a planetary map. Still, their memory is marked on the Evening Star, a fun fact creating a perfect occasion for sharing their stories with every girl you know.