Margaret was born to a farming family in Italy in 1247. At seven her mother died and two years later, her father remarried. Unfortunately, her stepmother did not care for her. She was a very attractive girl, who thirsted for the affection denied her at home. A young cavalier from Montepulciano induced her at the age of 12 to elope with him, and although promising to marry her, he never did. She lived openly with him as his mistress for nine years causing her great scandal and bearing him a son.
One day after he had failed to return from visiting some of his estates, the family dog returned without him. She set out to look for him following the dog who led her to his body. He had been murdered. She immediately felt great remorse at her estrangement from God and her family. She gave away to her dead lover’s family all the possessions she had and returned home to attempt a reconciliation with her father. However, at the urging of her stepmother, her father refused to take in Margaret and her son.
In desperation she sought refuge with the monks of St. Francis in the town of Cortona. Arriving there she met two women who took pity on her and took her in. They also introduced her to the Franciscan monks who counseled her. She struggled against the temptations of her prior life, alternately going through periods of exultation and despair. She sought to fight temptation by exhibiting her penitence in excessive ways such as going to mass at Montepulciano with a rope around her neck, but the friars counselled her against such excesses and recommended that she try to find peace by helping others. She followed that advice and started a life of prayer and caring for the sick and poor. She moved from the house of the women who had taken her in to a small cottage, where she lived on alms which she used primarily for the poor, keeping very little for herself.
In three years she was able to overcome her temptations and reach a higher plane of spirituality. She then sought to become a member of the Third Order of St. Francis. Impressed with the sincerity of her conversion, the monks admitted her. Soon after, her son entered school away from home and eventually became a Franciscan. She seemed to have reached a level of spirituality where she developed a deep and personal relationship with God.
In 1286 the bishop of Arezzo granted her a charter to continue her work for the sick and poor on a permanent basis. Eventually she opened a hospital with other Franciscan women whom she formed into a congregation.
But her trials were not over. Because of Margaret’s prior sinful life there were those who doubted her sincerity and began casting aspersions on her relationship with the friars. The pressurre from these scandalous rumors were such that the Franciscans transferred her principal spriritual advisor, Fra Giunta, to a distant monastery to stop them. For a time even her ability to pray was affected. However, she bore these trials patiently and persisted in prayer, meekly and humbly accepting God’s will. One day in prayer she heard God’s call to summon others to Him by preaching.
Margaret began to preach repentance. Her efforts were rewarded, and her fame spread. Conversions through her preaching were many, and people came from all over Italy, Spain, and France. Miracles of healing also occurred through her. Even the people of Cortona, who had distrusted her, were won over.
She died on February 22, 1297 at the age of 50. She was publically proclaimed a saint on the day of her death, and the people of Cortona built a church in her honor. Maragaret was not canonized until 1728 by Pope Benedict XIII. Her feast day is celebrated on February 22.
Margaret of Cortona did not start life as a saint and showed great weakness to temptation, which she overcame through prayer and good works. She is surely a saint for our troubled times, and someone to whom we should pray for conversion for ourselves and the society in which we live.