Historians believe that she was born in around 980 A.D., although her exact place of birth is not known. Some argue that she was born in the Savinja Valley, although other sources – and local legends – claim that she came from Plistanj Castle in the Kozjansko hill country, also in eastern Slovenia.
She was a member of a noble family that owned estates throughout in the Slovenian Lands, and she was renowned for her beauty. It’s not known if Hema spoke Slovenian or German at home, but most of the area’s peasantry was Slovenian-speaking at the time.
Hema’s life was tragic in many ways. She lost her husband and both her sons. These circumstances apparently made her deeply religious. She decided to leave her extensive property to the poor and founded a Benedictine nunnery in the province of Carinthia. Although she never became a nun, Hema moved to the nunnery and lived there until her death in 1045.
Because of her good deeds and her popularity among ordinary people, Hema soon became a candidate for sainthood. She was beatified by pope Honorius IV in 1287, but the Church administration can be slow and bureaucratic; she didn’t become canonized until 1938, more than 600 years later. Just before World War II, she became what many have described as Slovenia’s first saint.
Today, Hema is revered by both Austrians and Slovenians. She is the patron saint of Carinthia in Austria, but her gravesite in the town of Gurk has a special significance for the Slovenian people. It is a popular pilgrimage destination and the site of annual gatherings of people from both sides of the border. Saint Hema is also the patron saint of the church in the small Slovenian town of Šentrupert, where churchgoers still pay tribute to a woman who overcame a personal tragedy with a faith in God and a commitment to the less fortunate.