Owing to the international holiday named after him, St. Patrick may be one of Christianity’s most famous saints, along with the likes of St. Augustine, St. Francis of Assisi, and St. Joan of Arc. But how much do we really know about these and the thousands of other saints?
Aside from seeing their names applied to churches and various groups of which they’re patrons, many of us are probably in the dark about what led to them being beatified and therefore permanently etched into Christian memory. These books offer insight into the biographies of some of the most famous and inspiring saints. Interestingly, it’s difficult to track down biographies of the female saints—or, rather, to find truly exemplary books. No matter your religious denomination, these accounts will uplift you with their stories of heroism, determination, and personal sacrifice.
Philip Freeman’s biography unmasks the mythical figure of St. Patrick, revealing surprising details about his progeny and early life. Born to an aristocratic British family, Patrick was abducted at age six and taken to Ireland, where he was forced into years of slavery. When he was finally freed from these circumstances, he surprised everyone by opting to return to Ireland and offer service and spiritual guidance to the very people who had mistreated him. Freeman’s account also includes two newly translated letters Patrick wrote describing his life and beliefs.
Probably the most famous book in Christian theology aside from the Bible, St. Augustine’s Confessions is a beautiful spiritual memoir written by the African-born writer and thinker when he was in his forties. Revered by the Christian community and the literary world alike, Augustine’s autobiography accounts for his upbringing—he was born to a pagan father and Christian mother—and his early years of licentiousness and inner conflict. Confessions is remarkable for its honesty as well as its sheer staying power: Completed around 398 A.D., the book is still widely read and quoted.
St. Joan of Arc
There are several fantastic historical fiction novels that focus on Joan of Arc, but we were hard-pressed to find a biography that commands the same attention. No surprise, then, that the best book about Joan of Arc is written by Joan herself. Willard Trask has taken the transcripts from Joan’s trials for witchcraft, translated them, and rearranged them into this mash-up of biography and memoir. Just as Joan heard the voice of the Archangel St. Michael, her words ring true to readers even centuries later.
St. John Bosco
John Bosco was a 19th-century Italian priest and educator most famous for his efforts to improve the lives of the underclass—and particularly juvenile delinquents—in industrialization-racked Turin. This collection of his writings about his dreams offers insight into his early life, his preternaturally intense spiritual connection to God, and his struggles to keep his faith alive.
St. Francis of Assisi
Many know St. Francis of Assisi as the patron saint of animals. In his comprehensive biography, Omer Englebert contextualizes this designation, tracing the arc of Francis’ life (he traded his family’s fortune for life as a friar) and examining his unique spiritual view of the connection between humans and animals. Englebert also takes stock of Francis’ impressive contributions to the Catholic clergy: He founded three different orders, including one for women.
For bios of hundreds of other saints—especially female ones including St. Lucy and St. Catherine—look to the Illustrated World Encyclopedia of Saints. In addition to providing brief accounts of the saints’ lives, the book also features gorgeous images of Renaissance art, explains the requirements of sainthood and the process of canonization, and offers insight into modern saints, including the celebrated, albeit controversial, Mother Teresa of Calcutta.