Anna was born with the first names Anna Caterina in Mantua in modern-day Italy in 1566 into a wealthy and noble family. Her father was Guglielmo Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua and her mother was Eleanora of Austria, the daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor. Although born into a privileged family, Anna was raised in a very pious Catholic household and was deeply religious. This meant that much of her time was spent at prayer rather than on frivolities.
This sense of religious devotion became more intense when Anna almost died at the age of five. She was very ill for years until her parents apparently promised to the Virgin Mary that they would raise the child in dedication to her if she lived. Anna got better, and of course, her parents believed this was due to the Virgin Mary’s power, and from then on, they raised Anna for a life devoted to Mary.
When Anna was under ten years old, it is said that her bedroom became filled with a bright light and Mary appeared and spoke to the girl. Anna was unable to understand Mary’s message at this time, but apparently, in later life, it became apparent to her. At this stage, Anna wished to become a nun.
In 1582, Anna was called in to speak to her father, who had a request for her, which was to de-rail the plan she had for her life. Her father had been approached for Anna’s hand in marriage on behalf of Archduke Ferdinand II of Austria, who was also her uncle as he was her mother’s brother. Archduke Ferdinand was almost forty years older than Anna, but having recently been widowed from a morganatic marriage meaning his children could not succeed him, he needed an heir. While Anna longed for a religious life and did not want to marry her ageing uncle, she did not complain and did what she was required to do for her family’s sake.
Before moving to Austria, Anna asked that her parents would carry out some acts of charity on her behalf; to release 15 people from prisons, to furnish 15 churches and to give money to 15 people in need. Her father carried out Anna’s wishes, and she left for Innsbruck. On 14th May 1582 sixteen-year-old Anna married her fifty-three-year-old uncle and became Archduchess of Austria.
Within a year, Anna and Archduke Ferdinand had a daughter together named Anna Eleonore, but sadly the girl died the next year. A second daughter was born just months after her sister’s death and was named Maria. Maria lived a long life as a nun. In 1585, a third daughter was born to the pair and was named Anna and went on to become Holy Roman Empress after her marriage to her cousin Matthias. The two surviving girls were raised in the Catholic faith by their mother and were educated to a very high standard. Due to their sickly nature, Anna also made sure to feed the children a special diet from a cookbook she had made personally.
Archduke Ferdinand was angered by the fact that no sons were born to him and Anna, and though he loved his daughters, he could not hide his resentment. It took him time to come to terms with the fact he had no male heir. Ferdinand loved his wife however and gave her gifts of fine clothing and properties. After a period of illness, Ferdinand died in 1595. His ten-year-old daughter Anna inherited his lands in Tyrol and other further Austrian territories which would later be combined with her husband’s vast dominions.
After the death of her husband, Anna Juliana could finally devote herself to a religious life as she had always planned. She was not yet thirty and had plenty of wealth and energy to pour into the church. Anna began to dress very simply and tried to live a modest life even within the walls of Innsbruck Palace. Anna moved out of the main palace into a small building near to the chapel which was sparsely furnished. Her time was taken up by religious devotions, and so her daughters were entrusted to governesses for their upbringing. Anna began to live a quiet life and gave up her finery; she would even fast on Fridays.
With the large amounts of money that Anna had from life as an Archduchess, she began to give to those in need. She would feed the poor with her own hands from the palace. Anna also donated large sums to the church and religious institutions. When out on visits to give out alms or to visit the sick, Anna took her daughters with her.
In the 1600s, Anna began to have more visions of Mary. In one such vision in 1606, Anna said she was instructed to build a convent in Innsbruck. The convent was to be for the Servants of Mary, Religious Sisters of the Servite Third Order. Anna held a ceremony to have the first cornerstone laid on her own land but started to face opposition to the construction. Some of Anna’s advisors told her not to deplete palace funds by building the convent and did not wish her to continue with the plans. This caused Anna a lot of stress, and she fell ill suddenly. It seemed like Anna would die as she became covered in wounds and was unable to leave her bed.
While Anna lay sick in her bed, a mass was given in her bedroom. During this mass, the sickening Anna suddenly had another vision of Mary. The Virgin Mary appeared in front of Anna and offered to protect her, the next minute, Anna jumped up from what had seemed to be her death bed, and she was healed. Another day during the construction work, another such miracle happened; there was a landslide which crushed a worker under the earth, but when a search party was out looking for his body, he was found to be completely fine. Anna’s sudden recovery and this second miracle quietened down the people who had opposed the building of the convent and Anna was able to get it finished. When the convent was finally completed, Anna fulfilled her wish and became a nun under the name of Anna Juliana. Her daughter Maria also became a nun in the same order.
Anna died in 1621, and she came to be thought of as a saint with people devoting themselves to her. A case for her to be canonised was opened but has so far never been finalised.