The remarkable Caterina Benincasa, daughter of a rich Sienese dyer, took a nun's veil (but never an order's vows) in 1355 at the age of 8 after her first of many visions of Christ. In 1375, a crucifix in Pisa cinched her holiness by giving her the stigmata of Christ's wounds. Her name and reputation for devout wisdom and saintly life spread, and in 1378 she was chosen as Siena's ambassador to Pope Gregory XI in Avignon. There, her eloquent letter writing and sharp, argumentative mind eventually succeeded in doing what 73 years of political finagling had not been able to accomplish: She persuaded the pope to leave civilized Avignon and return the papal seat to Rome, which was then a backwater rife with the armed squabbles of noble clans. Caterina died in Rome in 1380, at age 33, and was canonized 80 years later. In 1939, she was declared patron saint of Italy, and in 1970, together with St. Teresa of Avila, received the highest honor the church can bestow: Saints Catherine and Teresa became the first women elevated to Doctors of the Church.
The house where she was born was converted into a sanctuary in 1466, and it remains a peaceful, reflective spot. The entrance is a small brick-lined courtyard where you can occasionally see a pair of Oca (Goose) contrada teenagers practicing the art of flag tossing. To the left is the old family kitchen transformed into an oratory and decorated in the 16th and 19th centuries with paintings by Il Pomarancio, Il Riccio, Francesco Vanni, and others. The majolica-tiled floor is 16th century. The church opposite the oratory was built in 1623 over Catherine's orchard to house the 12th-century Pisan-school Crucifixion, in front of which the saint received the stigmata. Back under the loggia, the stairs lead down past Catherine's cell, frescoed in 1896, toward the Goose contrada's church, the Oratorio dell'Oca (seldom open, but containing works by Sodoma).
At the bottom of Via Santa Caterina below, nestled amid the remaining green of the narrow valley between San Domenico and the Duomo, is the brick 1246 Fonte Branda, a public wash house battlemented like a tiny fortress.