Diana, Caecilia, and Amata were the first members of Saint Agnes Dominican Convent in Bologna, Italy. They all knew Saint Dominic personally. Little is known of Sister Amata except that she was a good friend of Saint Dominic, who, according to legend, gave her the name Amata (‘beloved’). Dominic either sent her to the reformed convent of Saint Sixtus when the nuns left Saint Mary’s across the Tiber during a time of drastic reform, or he was instrumental in allowing her to stay there. There was an Amata from whom Dominic cast out seven devils, but it was probably not this Amata.
Caecilia Caesarini was a high-spirited young Roman of an ancient family; she threw her considerable influence into the reform movement at the time Saint Dominic was attempting to get the sisters into Saint Sixtus and under a strict rule. When the saint came to speak to the sisters at Saint Mary’s, it was Caecilia (then 17) who urged the prioress to support his cause. She was the first to throw herself at Dominic’s feet and beg for the habit and the rule he was advocating, and her hand is evident in the eventual working out of the touchy situation. In 1224, Caecilia and three other sisters from Saint Sixtus, including Amata, went to Saint Agnes in Bologna to help with the new foundation. Sister Caecilia was the first prioress there and proved to be a very strict one.
Caecilia is responsible for relating nearly everything now known about the personal appearance and habits of Saint Dominic. In her extreme old age, she was asked by Theodore of Apoldia to give him all the details of the saint’s personality, and all that she could recall of the early days of the order, so that he could record them for posterity. Though nearly 90, her memory was keen and specific. She recalled how Dominic used his hands, the precise shade of his hair, the exact line of his tonsure. If she erred, there were still people alive who could have corrected her, though there was probably no one with her descriptive power left to tell the tale.
Through a woman’s eyes, she saw the founder from a different angle than his fellow preachers were apt to see, and remarked on his gentleness with the sisters, and the little touches of thoughtfulness so characteristic of him. While the men who worked with him would recall his great mind and his penances, and appreciate the structural beauty of the order he had founded, Caecilia saw the glow of humanity that so many historians miss.
The most colorful of the three was Sister Diana, the spoiled and beautiful daughter of the d’Andalo and Carbonesi families of Bologna, who lost her heart to the ideal of the Dominicans when listening to Reginald of Orléans preach. She espoused the cause of the friars, who were new in Bologna, and begged her father until she obtained from him the church of Saint Nicholas of the Vineyards, of which he had the patronage.
Having established the brethren, she wanted a convent of the Dominican sisters in Bologna. When Saint Dominic came there on his last journey, she talked with him, and all her worries departed. She knelt at his feet and made a vow to enter the Dominicans as soon as it should be possible to build a convent at Bologna. Saint Dominic, going away to Venice on a trip from which he would only return to die, made sure before leaving that the brethren understood about Diana. Four of the fathers from the community of Saint Nichola were under obedience to see that her convent was built.
In the meantime, Diana’s father refused her permission to enter the convent. Stealing a leaf from the life of Saint Clare, she ran away to the Augustinians outside the city. In full armor, her brothers came after he, and Diana was returned, battered but unconvinced, to the paternal home. She nursed a number of broken ribs and several explosive ideas in silence.
The death of Saint Dominic was a great grief to Diana, as she was still living in a state of siege at home, waiting for some action on the question of the new convent. However, she soon acquired a new friend, who was to be her greatest joy in the years of her mortal life–Jordan of Saxony, master general of the order following Dominic. Jordan, as provincial of Lombardy, inherited the job of building the Bologna convent, but his relations with Diana were not to be merely mundane. Their friendship, of which we have the evidence in Jordan’s letters, is a tribute to the beauty of all friendship, and a pledge of its place in religious life.
Diana was resourceful. She made another attempt to elope to the convent. This time her family gave up in despair. She remained peacefully with the Augustinians until the new convent was built. In 1223, Diana and several other young women received the Dominican habit from Jordan of Saxony. Diana was the prioress for a time, but perhaps Jordan felt that she was too volatile for ruling others, because, as soon as the sisters came from Saint Sixtus, he established Sister Caecilia as prioress. Diana, who was used to being not only her own boss, but the one who gave orders to others, seems to have made no protest.
If we had the letters written by Diana, we should possess a fascinating picture of the early years of the order and the people who made it what it is. We are indebted to Diana for what we do have of the correspondence, for she carefully saved all of Jordan’s letters. They tell us of the progress made by the friars in various lands, and ask her to remind the sisters to pray for the missionaries. Jordan counts the successes when many good novices have come into the order, begging her prayers in the low moments when promising novices leave.
More than this, these are letters of spiritual direction, which should give a pattern to all such correspondence, for they infer that Diana is a willing and energetic Christian who will follow the advice she is given, not simply keep the correspondence going for the joy of it.
Diana died in 1236. She was buried in the convent of Saint Agnes. Her remains were transferred when a new convent was built, and Sister Caecilia–who died 60 years later–was buried near her, along with Sister Amata. The relics were transferred several times, all three together. The head of Blessed Diana was placed in a reliquary near the tomb of Saint Dominic.
Born: twelfth century
Died: thirteenth century
Beatified: Pope Leo XIII confirmed their cult in 1891