St Rita of Cascia | The Disfigured Saint Who Impacted the World You’ll Love

In this story, you’ll learn all you need to know about St Rita of Cascia the disfigured saint who impacted me … and the world! This is what I didn’t know when I fortuitously discovered her in Italy. And then revisited her in Spain.

Summary

In this story, we discuss how St Rita became known as the patron saint of lost causes, bad marriages and disfigured people.

You’ll learn about the St Rita of Cascia festival, when it happens and where it happens: Italy and Santiago de Compostela, Spain.  

You’ll also learn about my connection to the saint over the years.

And finally, the St Rita prayer is included after this intriguing story.

Pinterest graphic with image of St Rita in mosaic and text over: St Rita of Cascia

Chapter I: How I discovered St Rita of Cascia

Rita of Cascia Festival | Photo by Jonathan Emil

It was springtime in Assisi, Italy, when I first heard of St Rita of Cascia, an Italian saint whose renown is felt worldwide, most notably in Spain and Italy and also in the US. I’ve been intrigued ever since.

A British tourist in his mid-thirties nonchalantly mentioned the saint to me in reference to a little-known village festival. We sat at separate tables at a sunny outdoor café. The poppies in the field across the way danced before us as if trying to mimic ocean waves. We were mesmerized by their splendor. His wife twirled Pinot Grigio in her near-empty glass.

“If you’re interested in experiencing authentic Italian culture, you should go to Cascia. They have a festival on the feast day of St Rita of Cascia. She’s the saint of lost causes, bad marriages, unmarried and ugly people,” said the Brit offhandedly.

“Ugly people?” I asked incredulously. It was the 1990s before inclusive language was the norm. And so, these sorts of insensitive topics were discussed rather openly. Even by proper Brits.

St Rita of Cascia Festival

“Yes, the St Rita of Cascia festival is said to be attended by those who aren’t married. On the feast day, they go to Cascia and pray for a spouse. I’m certain they all must be pretty unattractive if they’re that desperate,” he sniffed.

I glanced sideways at his wife, who was relatively young, dressed in linen and beautiful. She had plenty of suitors before she married this one, I thought. She probably needn’t kneel to pray for a spouse.

This guy was full of advice. I should visit the Assisi War Cemetery nearby. I should try the local Assisi Bianco wine. I should go to the ugly festival.

“We’re here from England visiting WWII battlefields,” he shared. “The poppies symbolize the blood those poor boys shed here.” I smiled at his wife, trying to draw her into the conversation. She looked away.

“We’ve got a car. Would you like to go with us? We’re heading to Cascia today.” The offer was tempting. I looked at his wife. She was wiping the corner of her downturned mouth with a napkin.

“Thank you for the offer. Maybe I’ll make it to Cascia another time,” I said, wondering if they planned to pray for a lost cause once they got there. Although that was decades ago, the St Rita of Cascia spell was cast over me. I had no idea how that would pan out later.

Chapter II: Who is St Rita of Cascia?

St Rita of Casia | By Roscini Claudio, Public Domain via Wikimedia

I wasn’t the only person unaware of the Italian saint beloved by so many worldwide. My friend and writer Johnnie Walker says, “I had never heard of Saint Rita of Cascia until I volunteered to be the organist in the Jesuit Church of San Agustín in Santiago de Compostella, Spain, 10 years ago.

Santiago, Spain and St Rita of Cascia

“I learned that Rita had been a married woman with two sons and that her husband had been abusive. After his death Rita entered an Augustinian convent and became greatly revered for her holiness.

“It is said that on her deathbed, she asked to see the roses from the garden one last time. The other nuns explained that it was winter and there were no roses; however, when they went to the garden, there were roses in bloom.

“In Italy and Spain, Santa Rita is the patroness of people in great difficulty, and the ‘gift’ which people make to the saint when they ask for her intercession on their behalf to the Lord is a bouquet of red roses,” Johnnie describes.

This explains why, in the San Agustín church in Santiago, a 17th-century shrine to St Rita of Cascia is constantly bedecked with red roses.

Feast of Saint Rita on May 22

Each year, during the nine days leading up to the Feast of Saint Rita on May 22, special prayers and services are held to celebrate Rita’s life. On her Feast day, 14,000 people, all bearing bunches of red roses, celebrate ten Masses.

“This devotion to Saint Rita by the people of Santiago is of very long standing,” says Johnnie, a Scot who makes Santiago his home. “San Agustin church was originally an Augustinian monastery in the 17th Century when people started praying at the shrine.”

In the 19th century, the government confiscated and sold much church property. So, in 1836, the church was abandoned and lay in ruins. It did not reopen until the Jesuits arrived in 1918.

“Despite this gap of over 80 years, the people flocked back to visit the shrine of St Rita of Cascia. She had never been forgotten,” Johnnie says.

Chapter III: Making it to St Rita of Cascia another time

cars driving fast next to guardrail on winding mountain road

The incident with the British man in Assisi was almost twenty years ago. But recently, I finally get my chance to visit St. Rita in Cascia, Italy. Thanks to my friend Dorine who drives me there in her flashy, white Alpha Romero roadster.

“I don’t think you can really write about an ugly festival,” says my friend, maneuvering her car through tight mountainous curves on the way to remote Cascia. “It’s just not something you can talk about these days.”

“Well, maybe I can just quote that cocky British guy,” I offer. “I wouldn’t have to say it—he could.”

“But what about libel?” she counters.

I’m thinking I would have to name the guy to be charged with libel. And since I don’t even remember his name, I could hardly do that. In fact, since the years have clouded my memory of the conversation, I couldn’t really quote him because how on earth could I remember his exact words? I could write it as fiction.

I mull these things as we zoom around another banked twist in the road.

“Uh-huh,” is all I say, reaching for the grab handle.

 

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Part III: My Visit to the Basilica of Santa Rita da Cascia

white church building reminiscent of a 17th C French church with duo towers
Cascia Basilica Santa Rita | UNSTOPPABLE Stacey photo

“You don’t have to wait in this long line,” Dorine insists. The cue of the hopeful strings around the inside of the basilica, starting at the entrance and going all the way to the front altar and then to the left transom where the body of St. Rita lies. It’s moving at a snail’s pace.

“You could just walk up to St. Rita right there,” she directs. I don’t want to be a tourist and “bud in line.” I want to wait in line and move at the pace of a snail to get a feeling for the basilica. Would I sense the Holy Spirit in the place?

Description of the tomb of St Rita of Cascia

The slow-moving cue allows me time to observe the basilica. I gaze upward at the cupola. Modernistic depictions of Jesus, angels and flying nuns embellish the ceiling. The place was built between 1937 and 1947, so the frescos reflect the concentrated color style of the time. I prefer Renaissance art found in Florence or the simplistic renderings of Giotto in Assisi. Here, the figures’ shapes were stroked in angles rather than curves, and the colors were harsh primary colors. Dare I say that the décor above is almost ugly?

So I shift my concentration to the beauty of the rose-lined altar as the line creeps by it. I am half the way to St. Rita. Vases of roses surround the altar, line the stairs leading up to the altar and crowd the floor so near me that I could smell their sweet aroma.

As Johnnie said, the rose is the symbol of St Rita of Cascia, so on her feast day, the faithful bring roses on their pilgrimage to the basilica. Did I mention that it is by dumb luck—or divine intervention—that Dorine and I happen to arrive on May 21, the day before the festival of St Rita?

The incorrupt body of St Rita of Cascia has been interned here since 1947 when the basilica was completed. Her body was never buried but kept in a humble chest after she died in 1457 and later transferred to a stone sarcophagus. Now, her cadaver rests in a glass coffin, and I am getting close enough to see her.

St Rita of Cascia is often portrayed with a bleeding wound on her forehead. When she was around 60 years old, the gash appeared while meditating in front of a crucifix. Considered a partial Stigmata, the wound still had drops of blood when nuns bathed St Rita of Cascia’s body for burial years later and again when her body was examined for beatification.

Walking over to Dorine, who waits patiently, I examine my fellow worshippers. No one appears ugly. In fact, many good-looking couples and families are lighting candles, praying and hugging.

While we walk the streets of Cascia and the nearby village of Roccaporena, St. Rita’s hometown, I see young people in powered wheelchairs, women with canes and older folks in mobility scooters. They look as if they could be at the festival to pray for lost or impossible causes. The faith and hope on their faces make them quite beautiful.

It seems as if Jesus is showing me how he sees these people and revealing that, indeed, there are no ugly people in God’s sight.

St Rita Prayer

Here is the St Rita prayer:

O God, Who bestowed on Saint Rita such grace that she loved her enemies and bore in her heart and on her forehead the mark of Your love and Passion, grant us, we beseech You, through her merits and intercession, a love for our enemies.

Through our contemplation of Your sufferings and Passion, may we merit the reward promised to the meek and the suffering. You live and reign forever. 

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Hi, I’m Stacey

UNSTOPPABLE Stacey Travel is a travel blog focused on immersive travel that highlights food, wine and the spirituality of place. I also occasionally write about life as a Camino de Santiago pilgrim. I hope you enjoy what I post here. Feel free to leave comments! Read more…

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