Technically, Columbia of Rieti is not a saint. Technically she gets the title “Blessed,” which is one rung below sainthood on the Catholic Ladder of Holiness. The process of beatification is simultaneously quite thorough and totally haphazard, as best as I can tell, and anyway her technically non-beatified status doesn’t make her any less interesting. Onward!
Columba was born Angelella Guardagnoli in 1467 to parents in Rieti, Italy who were poor but still gave money to the church because how else are they supposed to get those nice hats, hm? When she was baptised a dove flew into the baptismal font, so she was nicknamed Columba. She was educated by the Dominican nuns whose laundry she mended and made, and while still a teenager she had a vision of Christ on a throne, surrounded by angels. When you start having visions of Jesus there’s usually only one way for your life to go if you’re a young lady in Renaissance Italy, and that is straight into the convent. Unfortunately her parents had other plans (have you noticed that the parents of these virgin, female saints ALWAYS have other plans? Was no parent ever like, oh, okay honey, sure you can be a nun! Follow your dream!) and betrothed her to a young man. As was done at the time, and thankfully no more, she cut off her hair and sent it to him which was a clear signal that she had no hair and thus meant to become a nun.
At ninteen she became a Dominican Tertiary, and sometime before that she became anorexic. There’s a long long tradition among the more mystical parts of Catholicism of lots of fasting, or subsisting only on the communion wafer, or eating severely limited diets, and throwing up everything that gets forced down. It goes along with other physical self-punishment in lots of cases. Columba’s fasting, or anorexia, or whatever you want to call it went along with visions in which her spirit toured the holy land, like an early Birthright Israel for non-Jews.
Anyway, Columba was barely eating if she was eating at all, and then one day she wanted to throw her family a feast. She did, and then disappeared, leaving only her vestments behind in her chamber folded in the shape of the cross. There was no way out of her chamber or the city gates, but she left somehow.
It’s after she wanders away–with no real idea where she’s going–that the weird stuff happens. At an inn she’s mistaken for a noble girl who was seduced and then left by a priest, Chiaretta of Naples, whose father had a pretty good reward for her return. The innkeeper says he’s got a wife and daughters, and then shows up with some drinking buddies and demands the reward. Columba explains she’s not the noble runaway, and things get ugly when they try to rape her. However, after they rip her clothes off they’re shocked to discover lashmarks, blisters from a hair shirts, iron bands around her neck, waist and breasts, and that she was incredibly thin. Two men run off and the innkeeper drops to his knees and prays for forgiveness.
She ends up going to Perugia, and on the way her travelling group, all women, keeps being beset by people who want nothing more to rape Columba, whose holiness keeps getting her out of it: once a man who sticks his hand up her skirt feels a “pang in his heart,” once she stops at a roadside chapel and they can’t find her. Take home lesson: if you don’t want to get raped, be holier! An unspecified amount, naturally, and mind that this is of course all your responsibility since we can’t expect men to stop raping or anything.
Once in Perugia, Columba joins another convent and keeps not eating. Due to this whole “not eating” thing, lots of church higher-ups thought she may be in league with Satan, and no less than Lucrezia Borgia accused her of witchcraft, but Pope Alexander VI (also a Borgia) asked her advice once in a while.
As usual, there are conflicting reports on her death. Some sources say that when the plague struck Perugia, she became ill in place of the townspeople, saving them and dying herself at 34. Other sources say she starved herself to death, and honestly, given a history of self-starvation vs. a miraculous report of plague-gathering, I know which one I’m going to believe.
Her feast day is May 20, though maybe you shouldn’t feast so much as look longingly at some food while thinking about getting closer to God.