Around A.D. 1100, with the rise of the middle class, farmers in the Netherlands began to purchase swamp land and drain the water from it in order to raise crops. As dikes grew in importance in this area, the need for expert dike builders/farmers rose. However, after two hundred years, most of the work had been done and the decreased need for dike builders left many men without employment.
One such man was a Dutch peasant named Wilhelm Swarze. He left his home country with his wife and family and settled in Prussia seeking better means to support them. On Jan. 25, 1347, Wilhelm's wife gave birth to Dorothy of Montau, an area in West Prussia. She was the seventh child of Wilhelm and Agatha.
Dorothy was baptized on Feb. 6, 1347, the feast day of her patron saint, St. Agatha. At the age of only seven, she had her first religious experience. At the time, a pot of boiling water was spilled on to the child, burning most of her body. People wondered why she did not cry out or complain about the excruciating pain — but Dorothy suffered silently. Why did she — better yet, how did she — bear this? She explained many years later that she had heard a loving voice say to her, "I will make a new person out of you."
From that time on, Dorothy spent much time in prayer, rigorous exercises and penitential practices. However, she kept these things to herself, living an almost secret life of intense spirituality. Thus, no one ever considered preparing her for a religious life. Like most girls her age and her social status, she was being trained to be a housewife.
Although many suitors had been rejected, when her father died, her brother forced her to accept the hand of Albrecht, a member of the wealthy Schwerfeger family in Danzig, Prussia. The Swarze family, being little more than peasant farmers, was left in difficulties with the main breadwinner gone. The Schwerfeger family, on the other hand, was quite wealthy.
The Swarze family considered the match of Albrecht and Dorothy a good one which would improve their prospects.
As her confessor, spiritual director and future biographer, Meister Johannes von Marienwerder, a former professor at the University of Prague, explained, divine providence united Dorothy with a man more than twice her age:
so that the married state, as it has been approved by the Church, might be confirmed also by holiness of life, and so that she who would be brought low by the hardships she was to endure in her married life might glorify the Lord all the more in her children. In each successive state of life (as a virgin, as a wife and as a widow) she would be tested more and more thoroughly for the praise and glory of God.
Father Otto married Albrecht and Dorothy in August 1363 when she was only 16. They then lived together in Danzig. In 1366, Dorothy gave birth to their first child. Between 1367 and 1378, four of their children died in childhood. As of Dec. 8, 1378, four of eight children were still living. Then there was a fire in their home, from which Dorothy rescued them. However, in 1383 as the plague swept through Prussia, all but one of her children died in the epidemic.
Throughout her married life, Dorothy continued to have mystical experiences. Frequently, these would so distract her that her housework had been neglected. This so enraged her husband that he would beat her for being a poor wife. Albrecht thought by treating her roughly he would rid her of her mystical experiences.
However, the more difficult Albrecht became the more her love for the crucified Christ increased. In 1364, she experienced her initial vision of the crucifixion and her "ardent love" began shortly thereafter. Dorothy's cross in life came from being torn between her household duties and her spiritual life. Slowly, step by step, her patient endurance of this suffering transformed her husband.
After the death of their children, Dorothy and Albrecht planned a pilgrimage to Einsiedeln, Switzerland. On April 5, 1385, Albrecht sold both his business and their home before he and his wife, together with their 5-year-old daughter, Gertrude, began their journey.
As they made their way in a covered wagon containing their meager possessions and all their savings, thieves attacked them, taking everything. They arrived in Einsiedeln on Oct. 11, 1385 with nothing. The tension in Dorothy between her family duties and her spiritual experience became much more pronounced. She finally begged her husband to return to Danzig and leave her in Switzerland.
Although he agreed initially, he recanted when they went before the priest to relieve her of her marriage vows. The priest instructed Dorothy that she must return to Prussia with her husband. This disappointed Dorothy, but without complaint, she obediently followed her husband back to Danzig.
Despite the danger of the winter weather, they set out on the return journey at the end of January 1387, arriving in Danzig on March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation. The only housing they could find was a miserable hut attached to the church of St. Catherine.
Such a fall from wealth and comfort was made even more difficult by the people of Danzig who mocked them and even accused Dorothy of being a witch. The paradox of holiness gripped Dorothy: The more difficult their life became in the world, the more beautiful her spiritual life became as her love of Christ deepened and grew.
Albrecht's health steadily worsened. As Dorothy ministered to him faithfully, selflessly and lovingly, her husband complained and constantly humiliated her. Nevertheless, Dorothy would walk the streets, begging for alms to support the family.
Surprisingly, Albrecht recovered, and in a rare charitable impulse, he granted Dorothy permission to make a pilgrimage to Rome for the Jubilee Year. She left in August 1389 with a group of pilgrims from Danzig.
Along the journey, her mystical encounters increased. After no more than 10 months, she returned to Danzig in May 1390 only to learn that Albrecht had again fallen ill and died just three months before. Dorothy then entrusted her 10-year-old daughter to the convent in Kulm — she later became a Benedictine nun. Dorothy sold their meager belongings and resettled in Marienwerder.
She placed herself under the spiritual direction of Johannes von Marienwerder who tested her for her spiritual authenticity. He discerned that her mystical experiences were of God and not the devil, much to Dorothy's joy.
On May 2, 1393, she cloistered herself at the Marienwerder cathedral where she lived for one more year before dying. During that time, many came to her cell, from which there was no exit, to pass her food and ask her counsel.
One year later, she died — dying for love of Jesus, as she told one visitor. She related that Our Lord told her she was a "martyr for the indissolubility of marriage."
Her feast day is Oct. 30.
Dear Dorothy, as the sanctity of marriage continues to be attacked, we beg your intercession that the Church's teaching will be upheld and that families will be protected from the wickedness of the evil one. Amen.
Originally published at The Wanderer.