Direct ancestor of thousands of Dominican sisters, who today are engaged in all the active charities of the Order, was Blessed Emily Bicchieri. She built the first convent for conventual Third Order Sisters in 1256.
Emily was born in 1238, the fourth of seven daughters. Before her birth, her mother was privileged to see in a dream something of the future work of her daughter. She saw a magnificent church-one that she had never seen before-and a beautiful young girl wearing white robes and a veil with a wreath of white roses. Around the young woman gathered other girls, all dressed in the same fashion, and, as the good woman watched, enthralled by the beauty of the scene, they formed into a procession and marched singing around the church. An old Dominican to whom she related the dream explained to her it concerned the child she was bearing, and that this child, a daughter, would be a saint.
Emily grew up among her sisters and received, for that time, a good education. They were all taught to read and embroider, and Emily very early developed a talent for seeking out the poor and the troubled, using her talents to relieve miseries. She was her father’s favorite, in spite of the fact that she emptied her purse as fast as he could fill it. While her three older sisters were concerning themselves about making advantageous marriages, she was already planning her future, she would be a nun-just what kind, she did not know.
When Emily was seventeen, the first and the greatest grief of her life came to her- her father died. She had been his constant companion for several years, and she had dreaded breaking the news to him that she wanted to enter a convent. However, faced with death, he had quite easily given her the permission she desired, and, after his estate was settled and her mother provided for, Emily set about accomplishing her desire. Her portion of the sizeable estate she used to build a convent for sisters of the Third Order Conventual of Saint Dominic. It is not known that any such institution existed before her time, but it must have been both in mind of Saint Dominic and in the plans of his successors, because the Dominican fathers of Vercelli enthusiastically supported her in her project.
The papal brief authorizing the new foundation, the Convent of Saint Margaret, bears the date 1256. On the feast of Saint Michael, Emily and her companions- who now numbered more than thirty-were dressed for their bridal day in white gowns, with veils and wreaths of white roses. Emily’s mother, coming into the church for the first time to attend the ceremony, was amazed to see the details of her dream worked out in actuality. The young aspirants were questioned concerning their intentions, and then were taken out and dressed in the Dominican Habit. A Dominican nun from the Second Order has been appointed by the Cardinal to train in the tradition of the Order, and their novitiate began.
It was perhaps inevitable that the band of young novices would recognize Emily as their natural superior. She had all the qualities of leadership that one hopes for in a superior, as well as being the foundress of the convent. Consequently, when the borrowed novice mistress completed her work and saw them all professed, Sister Emily, in spite of her youth, was unanimously named superior. She was called “Mother Emily,” which was a great trial to her.
We wish that we knew more about this interesting household. We know that it was designed for good works as well as prayer, which indicates that the cloister was not strict as it was in the Second Order houses of the time, though even Second Order nuns traveled considerably in the late thirteenth century. One of the differences, and it may well be one of the principal differences, between the Convent of St. Margaret and the Second Order foundations, was that Blessed Emily’s house had no lay sisters; all the sisters were of the same category and shared in the work of the house. The Divine Office was said, though we do not know whether the sisters rose at midnight Matins. Blessed Emily herself discouraged the contact with seculars which was to bring so many religious houses to ruin, and set up her horarium so that the sisters would have time and privacy for the life they were expected to lead. The rich gifts that she and the other sisters received from friends and relatives were promptly given out to those who came seeking help at the alm’s gate.
Blessed Emily was not spared the agonies of spiritual doubt. Anxious as she was to receive Holy Communion frequently, the practice at the time was to go only rarely to the altar rail. Overly conscientious about her small faults, and battered about by the opinions of people less fervent that she was, she entered upon a long period of worry. Finally, our Lord Himself came to relieve her of it, and assured her that it was much more pleasing to Him for her to receive Him through love than for her to abstain from receiving through fear of unworthiness.
One of the convent tasks that Blessed Emily particularly enjoyed was that of infirmarian. This gave her the double joy of helping the sick and of mortifying herself. Once, in the exercise of this office, she had to make a difficult choice. It was Christmas Day, the time when she wanted with all her heart to receive Communion. There were three very sick sisters in the infirmary, and one of them could not be left alone. Emily had to remain with her during Mass, only hurrying out to receive her Lord and rushing back again, without time for the long thanksgiving that she felt the occasion demanded. However, as she came back to the infirmary and glanced at the three sick sisters, she acted on divine inspiration and said to them, ” I am not alone, my sisters; see. I bring Jesus to bless you.” Whereupon, our Lord chose that moment to cure the three sick sisters. They promptly rose up and joined in the celebration of the feast. On another day, Emily arrived in the chapel too late for Communion. Sad and regretful, she knelt in prayer. An angel came and gave her Holy Communion, miraculously.
Emily had always been a devotee of mortification. She made use of the usual medieval methods of conquering self-fastings, disciplines, hairshirts- and added others as she thought of them. Her special devotion was to the Holy Crown of Thorns. This famous relic had been brought from the Holy Land in the year that Emily was born, and, although she could hardly have seen it, she must have heard a great deal about it. She meditated often on it and on the terrible pain that it caused our Lord. One day she bravely asked our Lord to let her share this pain, and He granted this request. The stigmata of the crown of thorns was impressed on her head for three days of intolerable suffering, and during that time she was visited by several of the saints associated with our Lord’s Passion. At the end of three days, the pain disappeared, but she retained her great devotion to the Crown of Thorns all her life.
Blessed Emily was a strict superior, but a beloved one. Many times she saved her sisters from grief of one kind or another by her parents in their behalf, and her corrections were so gentle that they had great power over the culprit.
At least twice Our Lady is said to have come to see Blessed Emily, both times to teach her prayer. Miracles were worked by the prayers of the Blessed on the occasion of a disastrous flood, and also when a fire broke out inside the convent. She cured many sick people by her prayers, but she was always embarrassed at this sort of thing, as though she had somehow committed a fault.
Born: in Vercelli, Italy, c. 1238
Died: She died in1314 after a half century of prayer and good works in the convent which she had founded.
Beatified: She was beatified in 1769 by Pope Clement XIV
Let us Pray: O God who, who didst give unto Blessed Emily, Thy Virgin, grace to despise all earthly things, grant through her merits and intercession that, despising all perishable allurements, we may love Thee with our whole heart. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.