Joanna, a child of many prayers, was born heiress to the throne of her father, King Alphonsus V, at a time when Spain and Portugal had divided the colonial wealth of the earth between them. Her sickly brother Juan was born three years later, and soon after this their mother, Queen Elizabeth of Coimbra, died. Joanna was left to the care of a wise and pious nurse, who cultivated the child’s natural piety. By age five the little princess had exceeded her teacher in penitential practices. She fasted and prayed, rose at night to take the discipline, and wore a hairshirt under her glittering court apparel.
Although Joanna would not inherit the throne of Portugal while her brother was alive, a wise marriage would do much to increase her father’s power. Accordingly, he began early to arrange for her marriage. Joanna, whose knowledge of court intrigue was as good as his own, skillfully escaped several proposed matches. She had treasured the desire to enter the convent, but, in view of her father’s plans, her desires met with violent opposition. She was flatly refused for a long time; finally, her father gave his reluctant consent, but he withdrew it again at her brother’s insistence.
She was regent of Portugal when her father and brother went to war against the Moors, and when they defeated the Moors in 1471, her father, in the first flush of victory, granted her request to take the veil. Joanna and one of her ladies-in-waiting had long planned to enter the Dominican cloister at Aveiro, which was noted for its strict observance. But when her father finally gave consent for her to enter religion, he did not allow her to enter that Dominican convent. She had to go to the nearby royal abbey of the Benedictines at Odivellas. Here she was besieged by weeping and worldly relatives who had only their own interests at heart. After two months of this mental torture, she returned to the court.
The rest of Joanna’s life is a story of obedience and trials. Her obligations of obedience varied. She was required to bend her will to a wavering father, who never seemed able to make a decision and abide by it; to bishops, swayed by political causes, who forced her to sign a paper that she would never take her solemn vows; and to doctors, who prescribed remedies that were worse than the maladies they tried to cure. The trials came from a jealous brother, from ambitious and interfering relatives, from illness, and from cares of state.
After 12 years of praying and hoping, Joanna finally received the Dominican habit at Aveiro in 1485. Once, she was deprived of it by an angry delegation of bishops and nobles, and, at another time, her brother tore the veil from her head. Despite the interruptions of plague, family cares, and state troubles, Joanna lived an interior and penitential life. She became an expert at spinning and weaving the fine linens for the altar, and busied herself with lowly tasks for the love of God. She used all her income to help the poor and to redeem captives.
Her special devotion was to the Crown of Thorns, and, in early childhood, she had embroidered this device on her crest. To the end of her life she was plagued by the ambition of her brother, who again and again attempted to arrange a marriage for her, and continually disturbed her hard-won peace by calling her back to the court for state business.
On one of these trips to court, Joanna was poisoned by a woman–a person she had rebuked for leading an evil life. The princess lived several months in fearful pain, enduring all her sufferings heroically. She died, as it says in an old chronicle, “with the detachment of a religious and the dignity of a queen,” and with the religious community around her.
Born: Born in Lisbon, Portugal, 1452
Died: died at Aveiro, Portugal, in 1490
Beatified: April 4, 1693 by Pope Innocent XII (cultus confirmed)