Isabel Flores de Oliva was born in Lima, Peru on April 20 1586. Her parents were of Spanish descent and enjoyed a high standing among the newly formed hierarchy of Lima. Their social status, however, was not matched by any great wealth. Isabel, one of eleven children, began her transformation with a change of name, albeit one completely beyond her control. Her mother, along with several other family members and acquaintances, saw a rose bloom upon the face of the infant as she slept, from which day forward she was known as Rosa (Rose).
Penance and the Beautiful Saint Rose of Lima
It soon became apparent that Rosa was no ordinary child. According to Alban Butler (1710 – 1773), a renowned English Roman Catholic priest and hagiographer, “From her infancy her patience in suffering and her love of mortification were extraordinary, and, whilst yet a child, she ate no fruit, and fasted three days a week, allowing herself on them only bread and water, and on other days, taking only unsavoury herbs and pulse.”
As she developed into a young woman, Rosa became increasingly concerned with the attention she received from potential male suitors. She was, by all accounts, a young woman of considerable beauty, but she became unsettled by the harm, temptation and suffering that her own appearance could cause in others. At first she cut off her hair, despite the objections of her family. Her mother, in particular, wished to see her daughter married, quite possibly as a means of securing an advantageous union with a more wealthy family.
Rosa, however, was not to be swayed. She began to disfigure her face with pepper and lye, and further shunned male attention. Devoting her life to God, she concentrated entirely on her religious studies, the contemplation of the sacrament and prayer. At the same time, she went to great lengths to support her struggling family through both domestic duties, needlework and the sale of flowers that she cultivated herself.
St Rose of Lima and the Third Order of Dominicans
In 1602, at the age of 16, Rosa was allowed to enter the convent of the Third Order of Dominicans in Lima. She took a vow of perpetual abstinence and further dedicated her life to others. She opened a clinic offering medical services to the poor. She continued with her harsh fasting, eventually denying herself meat and barely surviving on only the most basic of foods. Her daily penances and mortifications continued, and she donned a crown of thorns over her veil.
According to Alban Butler, Rosa’s devotion to self-denial and suffering led her to ask God for greater trials. She would frequently pray: “Lord, increase my sufferings and with them increase thy love in my heart.” All the while, her charitable works continued, particularly those aimed at helping the devastated native population of Peru.
The Death of St Rose of Lima, First Saint of the Americas
On August 24, 1617, Rosa succumbed to her life of hardships. She died at the age of 31. The elite of Lima came to her funeral, including religious and political leaders. In 1671, St Rose of Lima was canonized by Pope Clement X, becoming the first saint of the Americas.
St Rose of Lima has since become the patron saint of, among other things, Lima, Peru, Latin America and the Philippines. She is also the patron Saint of gardeners and florists. Her feast day is celebrated on August 23 in much of the world, but in Latin America the feast falls on August 30. St Rose of Lima is further honored in Peru on the 200 nuevos soles banknote.