She was born in Lima, Peru on April 20, 1586 as one of eleven children. Raised in a devout Catholic household, she was personally confirmed by the Archbishop of Lima. Her nickname, "Rosa" was meant to symbolize her special relationship with God since a servant had once claimed to have seen her face transform into a rose. Since Rosa's parents were not well-off (her father was an arms-maker for the king while her mother did needlework), they maintained the traditional hope that their daughter would eventually marry well. Considering her beauty, they relished the thought of Rosa attracting a rich husbnd who would help their family. Unfortunately, Rosa had other ideas about how she would devote her life.
Growing up in Lima, which had been founded by Francisco Pizarro only fifty years before, Rosa saw first-hand the work of the Spanish inquisitors. She also saw the missionaries bringing the Catholic faith to the conquered natives (and the repression that the natives faced). By age five, she knew the life story of Saint Catherine of Siena by heart and became determined to become a martyr to her faith. She built a hut in her family's backyard where she spent most of her time when she was not helping to support her family with needlework. Rosa also began imposing regular hardships on herself in imitation of Catherine of Siena. In addition to regular fastings, she engaged in regular self-mortification to increase her suffering. First she cut off her hair (despite the protests of friends and family) and also began rubbing lye or lime into her hands, pepper into her face, and also perforated her skin. Her justification for the self-mutilation was that her beauty brought her too much attention and she wanted to discourage potential suitors.
In addition to becoming a vegetarian, Rosa also practiced regular floggings, wore a hair-shirt, carried a heavy cross on her back, and often deprived herself of sleep. This regimen continued for years while Rose faced ridicule and anger from her parents and other family members who tried to discourage her from a religious life. She also faced opposition from her confessor since Rosa refused to follow the conventional religious route by taking holy orders a nun. (which would have meant living her entire life in a religious cloister). Rosa insisted on being a lay holy woman and insisted on her religious name of Rosa de Santa Maria. She eventually became a tertiary, first informally associated with the Franciscan order and later with the Dominicans (like her model, Saint Catherine). Her religious vows focused on a life of chastity, poverty, and obedience but she consistently refused to enter the cloister.
Rosa also continued with her rigorous life of prayer, work, and penance. According to her later biographers, she "worked for ten hours, prayed twelve hours, and slept two". To keep herself awake at night, she often hanged herself by her hair and slept in a bed made of thin planks. Between the planks of her bed, she placed sharp ceramic shards which penetrated her skin and kept her from sleeping. Other penances included "whipping her back bloody so hard and cruelly that blood splattered the walls, the floor and her clothing", as well as wearing a heavy crown of thorns. Later in life, she wore a crown made of metal spikes that pressed into her forehead, just above her eyes (she decorated this crown with a rose garland). As part of her regular penance, Rosa engaged in religious fasting and, at times, limited herself exclusively to the Communion host.
Not surprisingly, Rosa's devotional lifestyle made her the talk of the community. Stories spread concerning her divine gifts (including prophecy) which were seen as a sign of her special status. Along with the prayer group that she led, Rosa offered up regular prayers to benefit the Lima community. They frequently asked for divine assistance for whatever disasters beset her fellow Peruvians. Unfortunately, being a woman meant that Rosa was barred from any actual missionary work which was a special disappointment for her. On more than one occasion, she was heard to lament that she had not been born a man so that she could be permitted to participate in the conversion of souls. Rosa's unconventional status as a lay religious woman attracted enough attention for her to be informally investigated by the Inquisition in 1614. Although the inquisitors eventually cleared her of any suspicion, their three-year investigation of Rosa's fasting and extreme religious practices likely added to the stress that was being placed on her body. By 1617, Rosa de Lima was dead, her body completed wasted by her long years of self-abuse.
Almost from the moment of her death, the case for Rosa being declared a saint began. Spearheaded by city officials, the Archbishop of Lima, and the Dominican order, an official council began taking testimony from Rosa's many family members, friends, clergy, and her religious circle. The process of canonization was helped along by the cult of veneration that had arisen in Lima. The numerous pilgrims to Rosa's simple grave were so enthusiastic in fact, that the body was later exhumed and transferred to the Church of Santa Domingo in 1619 so that visitors could see Rosa in her casket. Not everyone supported Rosa becoming a saint however. The Dominican order was actually divided on the question (they had other candidates in mind and Rosa's unorthodox religious life made many clerics uncomfortable).
The cult of veneration eventually attracted the attention of the Inquisition.
The chief inquisitor, Luis de Bilbao (who had been one of Rosa's confessors) ordered all of Rosa's writings and personal effects to be turned over to the Inquisition and formally censured several of Rosa's supporters. Ironically, while the Inquisition was suppressing Rosa's cult in Peru, her popularity in Spain was growing. King Philip IV became an enthusiastic supporter of Rosa's sanctity and declared her to be the patron of Spain's armed forces (despite the fact that she was not yet a saint). Though the case stagnated for decades, the Catholic Church began a formal inquiry in 1630 which collected testimony from 147 witnesses from all cross-sections of Peruvian society. Despite considerable pressure from the city of Lima (which had adopted Rosa as their unofficial patron saint) and the Spanish government, the case stalled further due to Pope Urban VIII's reforms. Responding to Protestant criticism of the Catholic practice of venerating saints, the church tightened the criteria for sainthood and declared that a candidate could only be considered after being deceased for fifty yeears or more.
Political pressure grew for a special exception to be made in Rosa's case (and spurred on by an influential hagiography of her life which was published in 1664) and the papal bull declaring Rosa a saint was formally delivered to Lima in 1671. Rosa was named the patron saint of Lima and Peru (later extended to all of the Americas and the Philippines). The nationwide celebration that followed the declaration that Rosa was America's first saint including religious processions, celebratory masses and, according to witnesses "a miraculous voice that spoke to the crowd" (a further sign of God's approval). Over the next century, there would be dozens of hagiographic pictures, books, poems, and sermons on Rosa's life and she would become an essential part of Peruvian culture. Considering the long and often violent process of converting Peru's native population to the Catholic faith, Rosa became viewed as a "redeemer" of the New World and a sign that the old native religious practices had been firmly stamped out. While numerous hagiographies would be written about her life, the actual testimony of the various eyewitnesses that was used in her canonization was largely suppressed with 0nly "official" details of Rosa's life being available. It was only during the 20th century that historians were able to learn more about Rosa and the world in which she lived.
But why did a woman whose severe life of self-denial and extreme self-mortification become so important in colonial life? In many respects,she happened to live at the right time and be in the right place. Considering the social unrest of the time and the often bloody necessity of suppressing the native population, religion become an important part of Peruvian life and local examples of extreme saintliness were needed to promote church policies of self-sacrifice and obedience. Rosa wasn't the only Peruvian of her generation to be canonized (there were three others) although she was definitely the most prominent. There was also a certain irony given Rosa's refusal to take holy orders, and the self-administered physical trauma which shortened her life. While she was presented as a role model, clerics actively discouraged girls from following her example too closely. Only one of the various women who modelled themselves after Rosa was ever canonized (and not until centuries after her death).
While voluntary suffering (also known as mortification of the flesh ) continues to be practiced in many religions, its use remains controversial. That Rosa was allowed to inflict such damage on herself in the name of religion may have seen less remarkable in her time but more modern interpretations are less forgiving. Current mental practice views all self-harm as pathological, regardless of the religious motives. Although Rosa de Lima's life was useful for religious and political propaganda, she likely would be dealt with far more differently today.