St. Catherine of Alexandria, Virgin and Martyr, Pray For Us

Tradition says St. Catherine converted to Christianity at age 14 after receiving a vision of Christ and the Virgin Mary

Caravaggio, “St. Catherine of Alexandria,” ca. 1598
Caravaggio, “St. Catherine of Alexandria,” ca. 1598 (photo: Public Domain)

St. Catherine of Alexandria (287-305) was a Christian martyr beheaded in Egypt who is patroness of students, unmarried girls and apologists. Her feast day is Nov. 25.

Catherine was born a pagan princess in Alexandria, Egypt, at the time known for its culture and learning. She was known for her intelligence and learning, studied much and asked her tutors many questions. Her mother was a secret Christian. Tradition says she converted to Christianity at age 14 after receiving a vision of Christ and the Virgin Mary. She had many suitors but did not express an interest in marrying any.

Emperor Maxentius came to power. He ordered sacrifices made to pagan gods, and martyred Christians who refused to participate. Catherine, only age 18, challenged him for his persecution of Christians. He ordered 50 of his best pagan philosophers to debate her; moved by the power of the Holy Spirit, she won the debate and converted many of the philosophers and those in the Emperor’s court. Maxentius ordered the execution of the new converts and Catherine’s arrest.

She was imprisoned for a time under harsh conditions and many people, sympathetic to her situation, came to visit her, including the emperor’s wife, Valeria Maximilla. Catherine’s words and example converted Valeria Maximilla and 200 of her entourage; when the emperor learned of it he ordered his wife and the 200 executed.

In a final effort to persuade her to abandon Christianity, the emperor proposed marriage to her. Catherine refused, saying she was married to Jesus Christ and her virginity was dedicated to him.

Catherine was taken to a spiked execution wheel for execution. It was a brutal form of execution; those condemned to it had their limbs woven among the spikes and then smashed by an executioner. Legend has it that she touched the wheel and it shattered into pieces; hence, pictures of her often have a spiked wheel in the background. Maxentius ordered her to be beheaded (and by some accounts did it himself).

In the 6th century, Eastern Emperor Justinian established St. Catherine’s Monastery on the Sinai Peninsula in her honor; many have visited it in search of healing through her intercession. She is also one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers whose intercession is believed to be most powerful, particularly in the prevention of disease. St. Joan of Arc, the 15th-century French peasant girl who once led an army against the British, reported that Catherine visited her.