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The Saints’ Guide to Charitable Estate Planning


by Patrick Gallagher

While many people routinely support Church and charity during their lifetimes, the number who use their estates — wills, trusts, life insurance, retirement plans, etc. — for charitable purposes is much smaller. There are many ways to contribute from one’s estate, some of which even provide current financial benefits to the donor.

In addition to consulting a financial advisor — such as your professionally trained Knights of Columbus Insurance agent — we can learn from the wisdom of the saints. After all, many holy men and women, even after a lifetime of charitable giving, benefited Church and charity through their wills. In other words, they continued their good works in this world after they went onto the next.


Some of the earliest saintly charitable bequests came from members of the clergy. One of the first Doctors of the Church, Gregory of Nazianzus (died 389), was a brilliant theologian, bishop and poet. When his parents died, he donated much of his inheritance to the needy. Similarly, when Gregory came to the end of his own earthly life, he left much of his estate to theChurch for the relief of the poor. According to a 2001 biography of St. Gregory, he willed a villa to his deacon and a monk, “together with sufficient gold to maintain it as a monastic establishment in the future.”

Another example is St. Perpetuus (d. circa 491), bishop of Tours. Born of a Roman senatorial family, Perpetuus owned several estates and directed their income to the Church. In his will, which he wrote 16 years before his death, Perpetuus gave his library and several farms to the Church. More poetically, though, Butler’s Lives of the Saints reports that he left the proceeds from the rest of his possessions to those whom he called “my children, O poor of Christ, needy, beggars, sick, widows, orphans.”

Not surprisingly, many bequests came from royal saints. St. Pulcheria (d. 453), for instance, was the granddaughter of a Roman emperor and later married the emperor’s successor. A member of the royal court for most of her life, Pulcheria’s devotion to the Church and the poor played out in her will when she left the whole of her personal estate to the poor and religious causes. These bequests were reportedly carried out by her emperor husband in the “most scrupulous exactitude,” according to a 1907 work titled The Life and Times of the Empress Pulcheria.

Likewise, the French King St. Louis IX (d. 1270) was a devout Catholic who built churches and monasteries, helped the poor, and led two Crusades. In his will, Louis left his library to the Franciscans and Dominicans in Paris, and made additional bequests to the Franciscans at Jaffa. According to a biography written in 1913, the king’s last will and testament “needed time and thought, that his works of mercy might endure after his demise. The magnificence of his bequests merely testifies to the lavish scale of his charitable expenditure during life. No detail was too trivial to be included, not even the thirty pounds a year to provide soup every day for his eighty blind pensioners in the hospice at Melun.”

Other saintly royalty were also posthumously generous. The English king St. Alfred the Great (d. 899) bequeathed half of all his goods to monasteries that he founded and he gave additional revenue to thepoor. St. Mathilda (d. 968), the first queen of Germany, built convents and churches and tended to the poor. A biography titled Vita Mathildis, written in the early 12th century, stated that at the end of St. Mathilda’s life, “she paid out the abundance of riches which she still had to the bishops, priests, and the poor, and divided it among monasteries.” Lastly, St. Hedwig (d. 1399), the young queen of Poland who died during childbirth, endowed the University of Kraków.


After England broke away from the Church of Rome in the 16th century, British anti-Catholic persecution produced many martyrs. Even in these circumstances, some mindful men and women still included Catholic causes in their wills. A member of Parliament, Blessed John Story (d. 1571) was imprisoned for opposing King Edward VI’s anti-Catholic laws. Under Queen Mary, who restored Catholicism, he prosecuted heresy, but he was arrested again when Elizabeth became queen. Story was convicted of treason and sentenced to death. In his will, he left bequests for convents and had a contingent bequest — which takes effect only when a certain contingency occurs — for whatever convent his daughter entered if she chose a vocation to religious life.

During the same period, Philip Howard led a very privileged life before his father was executed for treason by Queen Elizabeth in 1569. This didn’t prevent Philip from becoming a favorite in the queen’s court and consorting with the women there, despite his marriage. After a while, his neglected wife returned to Catholicism, and Philip followed. They were arrested trying to leave England and accused of praying for the Spanish Armada to defeat the British. Sentenced to death but never executed, Philip died in prison in 1595 and was canonized in 1970 by Pope Paul VI. St. Philip’s will included a bequest to the poor of London. He also reportedly ordered that, if Catholicism were restored in England, two of his homes should go to religious communities and all religious lands he owned be returned to the Church.

More recently, in the late 19th century, St. Katharine Drexel developed a strong sense of service, watching her wealthy parents share food and money with poor people in their Philadelphia home.

When her father, an investment banker, died in 1885, he left a $15 million estate (more than $250 million today). His will directed 10 percent to charity, then created what was essentially a charitable remainder trust, in which the three Drexel daughters each received about $1,000 per day for life. In an audience with Pope Leo XIII after the death of her father, Katharine expressed concern for Native Americans and African Americans, as well as her wish that a religious order would minister to them. The pope replied, “Why not be a missionary yourself?” With this, she entered a convent and ultimately founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.

In the end, Katharine personally saw little of her trust income. Instead, she put $20 million of her inheritance into her order. By 1955, when she died, the sisters had established 65 institutions in 21 states. So, what is to be learned from these saints? Simply put, it wasn’t the method of giving that mattered, but the mission. While these are stories of mostly wealthy saints, the opportunity to use one’s estate for charitable purposes isn’t limited to the very rich. Leaving a charitable bequest isn’t a sure path to canonization, but it might very well be evidence of a certain amount of holiness. These saints cared deeply about the Church’s ministries and the needs they saw, and they did something to help. In their compassion and generosity, they make great role models for us.♦

PATRICK GALLAGHER lives with his wife, Roberta, and their four children in Aberdeen, S.D., where he works for the Catholic school system.