The 400th Anniversary of St. Rose of Lima, the First Saint of the Americas

Lima in the late 1500s and early 1600s was home to at least four saints, including St. Rose of Lima

Claudio Coello, ‘Santa Rosa de Lima’, 1683
Claudio Coello, ‘Santa Rosa de Lima’, 1683 (photo: Register Files)

This month marks the 400th anniversary of the death of St. Rose of Lima, the first saint of the New World.

Her family name was Flores de Oliva. At her baptism her parents named her Isabel. It was a young Incan housemaid who said the baby girl was lovely “as a rose,” and that was the name that stuck, the name by which all her family and friends and neighbors called her, and the name under which she was canonized.

Rose grew up in a fine villa in Lima, Peru. Behind the house was a spacious garden, which Rose especially loved. Given her wealth, her rank, and her beauty, Rose’s parents expected her to make a brilliant marriage. Rose, however, wanted to be a nun. Her father rejected the idea as entirely unacceptable. To persuade his daughter to marry, he invited suitors to the house. To discourage these suitors, Rose rubbed her face with pepper, which left unsightly splotches on her skin.

In time, the suitors stopped coming, and Rose persisted in her determination to enter a convent. After a period of bickering, all parties came to an agreement: Rose did not have to marry, but she could not enter a convent. She could, however, join the Dominican Third Order; she would take religious vows and wear a nun’s habit, but she would live at home with her parents. Rose was willing to accept this compromise, perhaps because it was the same arrangement Rose’s favorite saint, St. Catherine of Siena, had reached with her family. Catherine had also been a lovely young woman from a prosperous family. She had also resolved to be a nun. And like Rose’s family, Catherine’s family had refused their consent, but they had permitted her join the Dominican Third Order. For Rose and Catherine, this was not ideal, but they could live with it.

With the help of one of her brothers Rose built a small hermitage for herself in the family garden. Some biographers describe it, rather romantically, as a “grotto.” Most likely it resembled a hut. Here she had privacy, while still remaining part of the family. As a member of the Third Order, she could be active in the outside world (in her day, if she  had entered a Dominican convent, she would have been cloistered). Yet it appears that early in her religious life, Rose wasn’t quite sure how to make herself useful in Lima.

After she took her vows, Rose began practicing severe penances. Over her black veil, she wore a silver crown studded with short spikes, in imitation of Christ’s Crown of Thorns. This so distressed her mother that Rose camouflaged the crown by interlacing it with roses. Over her bed she scattered broken pottery, which made every night a torment. It is hard to read about these mortifications, but in Rose’s day, and for many centuries before her, it was not unusual for clergy, religious, and even laypeople to adopt a routine of harsh penances in the hope of curbing their passions and atoning for their sins.

Rose reported that she received visions, and experienced ecstasies. But she also suffered from periods of depression.

She had not been living in her hermitage long when her family’s fortunes collapsed—her father had invested in a real estate project that failed. To help her cash-strapped parents, Rose took on lace-making and embroidery work, and became a professional gardener. She sold her lace and embroidery and flowers in the market of Lima. Needleworkers venerate St. Rose as their patron, but she is especially beloved by gardeners who invoke her aid to produce glorious blooms and to keep garden pests at bay.

Perhaps it was her family’s financial distress that made Rose more sensitive to the misfortunes of others. Or perhaps it was the experience of leaving the “cloister” of her garden and going out into the streets and marketplaces of Lima that brought Rose into contact with the sick poor and the desperate. Whatever the inspiration may have been, Rose’s vocation took on a new dimension. With her parents’ permission, she turned one room of the family house into an informal clinic where she tended sick children and elderly people.

Lima in the late 1500s and early 1600s was home to at least four saints. Rose is one, of course, but she had connections to the other three. That tireless missionary bishop and champion of the native tribes of Peru, St. Turibius de Mogrovejo, had confirmed Rose. Two of her friends were fellow Dominicans, laybrothers at Lima’s Dominican priory. St. John Macias was devoted to the poor of the city—he solicited gifts from donors so he could feed 200 hungry people every day. St. Martin de Porres worked in his priory’s clinic where it was said many of his patients recovered miraculously through Brother Martin’s prayers. In spite of his reputation for sanctity, humility, and a healing touch, Brother Martin endured the mockery and contempt of some of his fellow Dominicans. Martin was illegitimate, and he was of mixed race: his father of a Spanish gentleman, but his mother was a freed African slave.

Soon the people of Lima were telling each other stories of the miracles wrought by Rose. Her prayers saved Lima from an attack by pirates. Her touch healed the sick in her one-room hospital. She became one of the most beloved citizens of Lima.

Rose died on August 24, 1617. She was only 31 years old. Lima went into deep mourning, and the crowds that congregated around her bier were so great that the Dominicans could not control them. The friars were compelled to delay Rose’s Requiem Mass and burial for several days.

Pope Clement X declared Rose a saint in 1671—only 54 years after her death, which at the time was considered an expedited canonization. For some perspective, compare the canonization dates of three of Rose’s contemporaries: Turibius de Mogrovejo was canonized in 1726, John Macias in 1837, and Martin de Porres not until 1962.