The life of Saint Antoninus of Florence is the story of a great soul in a frail body, and of the triumph of virtue over vast and organised wickedness. The world in which he lived was engrossed with the Renaissance; it was the time of vile and political upheaval, of plague, wars and injustice. The effects of the Great Schism of the West, over which Saint Catherine of Siena had wept and prayed a generation before, were still tearing Christendom apart when Antoninus was born. 1389, the year of his birth, so also the birth of Cosimo de Medici. The fortunes of Florence were largely to rest in the hands of these two men. Of the childhood of Antoninus, we have few details, but they wear revealing ones. He was a delicate and lovable child. His stepmother, worried over his frailty, used to give him extra meat at table.
The little boy, determined to hard on himself for the religious life, would slip to meat under the table to the cats. He hitched his wagon to the star of great austerity and, at the age of 14, discovered in the preaching of Blessed John Dominici to the answer all his questions. He went to speak to the great preacher, who was at Santa Maria Novella, and begged to be admitted to the Order. Antoninus was possessed of an iron will-power. He went home and began at the front of the book at Saint John Dominici told him to learn by heart. By the end of the year he had accomplished the all-but-impossible task, and he returned to John Dominici to recited it as requested. There was now no further way to delay his reception of the habit, so the frail young man donned the habit he was to wear with distinction for 54 years. Ordained and set to preaching, Antoninus soon won his place in the hearts of the Florentines. He was given consecutively several positions in the Order, and, finally, it was to his horror, he was appointed Archbishop of Florence.
The appointment was a genuine heartbreak to a scholar who would never find enough to time to study, but it was a blessing for the people of Florence, and they were not slow in appreciating the good fortune. Antoninus was probably best known for his kindness to the poor, and there were many in the rich city of Florence. He took up his own garden of choice flowers to plant vegetables for the poor, and drove his housekeeper to distraction by giving away even his own table where, food, and clothing. He kept in personal contact with the poor of the city, particularly with those who had fallen from wealth and where ashamed to beg. For their care he founded a society called “Good men of Saint Martin”, who went about quietly doing much needed charity work much in the fashion of a modern society of Saint Vincent the Paul. When the plague again came to Florence, it was the saintly archbishop who took the lead in almsgiving and care of the sick.
Great numbers of the Dominican brethren died of the plague as they went about the priestly duties in the strickened city; sad but undauntedly, Antoninus continue to go about on foot among the people, giving both material and spiritual aid. Cosimo the Medici did not always have compliments for the Dominicans, admitted frankly: “our city has experienced all sorts of misfortunes: fire, earthquake, drought, plague, seditions, plots. I believe it would today be nothing but a mass of ruins without the prayers of our holy Archbishop”. On May 2 1459 Antoninus died, surrounded by his religious brethren from San Marco and mourned by the entire city. His whole life was mirrored in the last words he spoke: “to serve God is to reign”.