Category Archives: Saint Stories

St. Merida?

There are two names at issue here. One is Merida without an accent mark, as in the Disney/Pixar movie, Brave. The other is Mérida with an accent mark, as in the cities in Spain and Mexico.

So let’s look at them both. Are they okay as Christian baptismal names? Are there patron saints associated with them? What name day would you celebrate?

Let’s start with the newer one.

The Disney/Pixar Scottish princess, “Merida,” has (in some ways) a totally new name. Like Fiona and other names from literary sources, it’s not Scottish Gaelic (or it wasn’t, until now). If you give your daughter this name today, everybody is going to know that it’s a Disney princess name.

However. Disney/Pixar production sources have revealed that she was originally going to be named Mairghread, Mhairghread, or Mairead, all of which are Gaelic forms of the name “Margaret.” Staff decided that all those forms were too long, too hard to remember, or too weird to pronounce, so they coined the name “Merida” instead.

This is not a totally implausible form of Margaret for a native early medieval Gaelic speaker to come up with, especially as a diminutive form, baby mispronunciation, or nickname. Just as people got away with “Fiona” because it was similar to “Fionna,” it is likely that “Merida” will become a pretty normal form of “Margaret” in Scotland and around the world. So it’s not a bad name, and you can definitely use it as a baptismal name. (Might be better to call the girl Margaret and just use Merida as a nickname. Heck, she might turn out to be more of a a Meg or Peg or Margita, for all you know.)

You are spoiled for choice, when it comes to patron saints. There are a lot of St. Margarets, all around the world. The name means “pearl,” and is associated with the “pearl of great price” parable.

The most famous is the original St. Margaret, an early Christian martyr from Antioch in Pisidia (today’s Antakya, Turkey), who is also known as “St. Marina the Great” in the East. Legend shows her slaying a dragon with her Bible. Her feast is July 17 or July 20.

In Scotland, however, the most famous St. Margaret is St. Margaret of Scotland, the Scottish queen who helped the poor and raised good kings. She was a Saxon princess from England. Her branch of the family fled to Hungary to escape royal displeasure, and was later invited back by the saintly King Edward the Confessor. She was then sent north to Scotland to marry their king and bring peace, which she did. Unfortunately, William the Conqueror showed up pretty soon afterward… but hey, she did her part. Anyway, three of her sons were known for being good men and good kings, and that’s a pretty good record. But people really loved her because she helped the poor, acting as both a generous queen and a humble Catholic woman. Her feast day was June 10 (the translation of her relics and a nicer day for Scottish festivals), but has been moved to her death day of November 16 on the new calendar (so people can freeze instead of celebrating, I guess).

There must be something in the water in Hungary. A lot of pious queens have lived there.

Now for the Spanish Mérida!

Mérida with an accent mark is the name of the city of Mérida, Spain. It is also the name of a colonial city in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, and a lot of folks with Mexican family are being named after that city.

“Mérida” comes from the old Latin name of the Spanish city, Emerita Augusta. The colonia city of Emerita Augusta was founded in 25 BC by the Emperor Augustus, as a home for retired (“emeriti”) legionaries. However, the feminine form of the name means that it is named for the Empress (“Augusta”) Livia Drusilla, aka Julia Augusta. In this context, and since she wasn’t retired, “Emerita” would mean something like “deserving woman” or “woman of merit.”

There were many land grant cities like this, typically created or enlarged, and with the soldiers given farmland all around in the surrounding countryside. Sometimes these were in undeveloped areas; sometimes they were an attempt to beef up Roman garrisons with a loyal and well-armed citizenry. Emerita Augusta was settled by members of the 10th Gemina and the 5th Alaude Legions, two legions which had done a lot of fighting in the area. (Guys from XX Valeria Victrix may have settled there, too.) Even today, Mérida boasts a huge Roman bridge and a really big Roman theater, as well as a lot of other Roman things.

Mérida in the Yucatan was settled by Spanish people from the Spanish Mérida, and it apparently is a very lovely and historic place.

So who is the patron saint for this kind of Mérida?

Obviously, St. Eulalia of Mérida (the patron saint of Mérida, Spain) has a pretty good claim, especially with all the Catholics naming kids “Siena” after St. Catherine of Siena. St. Eulalia was an early Christian virgin martyr, under the Emperor Diocletian. She was eager to be martyred and got her wish despite her youth, being burned alive. Her corpse was exposed to be eaten by birds, but a timely snowfall kept her body safe and uncorrupted until Christians could spirit it away. Her feast day is December 10.

However, there is also a very early St. Emerita or Emerentiana, who was the sister of an early Christian king in Britain, St. Lucius. She is listed in catalogs of Welsh saints. Some say she just lived out a holy life in Gloucester or Glastonbury. Others say that St. Lucius resigned his throne and went off with her as missionaries to Switzerland, where they became martyrs. (Diane Duane uses this story in her Rhaetian Tales.) Her feast day is May 26 or December 3.

The most famous St. Emerentiana is the one in Rome who was the foster sister of St. Agnes. She was a still-unbaptized catechumen when she was stoned to death by pagans, after being discovered in the act of praying at St. Agnes’ tomb. Her feast is January 23.

So if you want to use either “Merida” or “Mérida” as a baptismal name, you have a pretty good argument.

And if you are already named “Mérida,” you have some awesome patron saints and name days to choose from.

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Devil Costumes Are Traditionally Catholic, Too

In Mallorca/Majorca, they have a local saint called St. Catherine of Palma, or St. Caterina Tomas.

When she was still with them, she was the kind of saintly girl who bore patiently with being tormented by nasty people and poltergeisted around by devils. (Yes, there are quite a few folks like this in the saintly rolls. It doesn’t happen often, but they tend to get notice.)

Before she became a nun, she lived a perfectly normal life, albeit she was an orphan who got treated like Cinderella by her uncle’s family. After she became a nun, her whole convent witnessed a lot of bizarre demonic phenomena. The most notorious moment was when she was minding her own business, and suddenly got lifted in the air about thirty feet and then dropped down a well. This happened in full view of all the nuns while they were having a recreation period, and it pretty obviously wasn’t something the girl could do herself. (And did I mention that she was unhurt, other than being stuck down a well?)

On the bright side, she also had gifts of prophecy and healing, as well as ecstatic trances that lasted for days. Saints visited her and gave her advice, as well as healing any wounds the demons gave her. But yeah, obviously a lot more fun to be an ecstatic levitating kind of saint than to be the kind who gets bugged by demons all the time.

It took a while for her case to be fully researched, to the point that even the Vatican was embarrassed by how long it took. (It was mentioned in her canonization decree.) It took so long that she’s still known on the island as “La Beata” or “La Beateta.” But the Mallorcans always knew she was a saint. Her uncorrupted body is on display in one of the island’s churches.

Anyway, it used to be the thing for the entire island (or at least the younger people) to dress up in devil costumes on notable days associated with her life and run around outside in the spring weather, having fun and playing pranks on each other. Nowadays, they have a parade with floats depicting events in the saint’s life. A few notable girls are chosen to dress up as the saint (which is an honor), and the rest of the kids dress up as devils and try to scare the spectators. The adults just watch. At other festivals, the traditional devil costumes have sadly disappeared, and things are a lot more passive.

For Mallorca being such a tourist island, it’s really hard to find any pictures of the parades and costumes online. One supposes that such things are discouraged. (In this day and age, maybe it’s just discouraging photography of kids. But sometimes people also don’t feel like dealing with ignorant comments about their local festivals.) On the other hand, it seems that the devil costumes may be going away, just as the traditional boy singer of the “Cant de la Sibil-la” at Midnight Mass on Christmas has been replaced by adult female opera singers. (Which is dumb. You lose the “unearthly” vocal quality of a trained boy soprano, and you also lose innocence. I could maybe see a little old lady doing it, but sheesh.) However, the “Battle of the Moors and the Christians” at Soller and Pollensa on August 2nd is still a thing — grown men dress up as Muslims and Christians and mock-fight in the streets, commemmorating a local Christian victory over Muslim corsairs in 1550, and giving the credit to “Holy Mary of God’s Angels,” the island’s greatest patron saint.

Anyway, St. Catalina Tomas’ feastday used to be April 5th, but it’s now on April 1st. (Handily enough.) But on the island, she gets celebrated on days in late July (July 27-28 in her hometown of Valldemossa), September, and October, depending on the village.

Pictures of island tilework and statuary of her.

Little kids dressed in traditional Mallorcan costume for one of the tamer festivals.

Kids forced to sit still in a carriage wearing angel costumes for one of the tamer festivals. These are “triumphal cars,” representing the saint’s triumphal entrance into Heaven upon her death, with lots of attendant angels. Apparently the gig for the kids is carrying baskets full of goodies for the crowd, and getting goodies too. The girl sitting up top is the one dressed like St. Catalina Tomas.

Info about the annual fiesta in the village of San Margalida.

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Blessed Ela, Countess of Salisbury?

Ela de Vitre, aka Ela Fitzpatrick. She was Countess of Salisbury in her own right, devoted wife of William Longsword, served as High Sheriff of Wiltshire in her own right too, laid one of the foundation stones of Salisbury Cathedral as a big donor, and was generally a powerful medieval lady. There’s lots to read about her, and she even comes into canonization testimony for St. Edmund of Abingdon (aka St. Edmund Rich), because she was miraculously healed of fever at one point, albeit by a reliquary of the blood of St. Thomas a Becket. (Yeah, not very useful for canonizing St. Edmund.) She founded two religious houses in one day (partly as a memorial for her husband), and she did lots of good things.

But is she a blessed?

Well, frankly, I don’t know. Probably she counts, but it’s murky.

The Big Book of Women Saints by Sarah Gallick lists Blessed Ela on February 24. Her main source for Ela as a blessed (as opposed to a historical figure) is Agnes Dunbar‘s excellent Dictionary of Saintly Women, Volume I, and the Bibliotheca Sanctorum (1961-1964), aka the Enciclopedia dei Santi. It was put out by a Vatican-backed university, so there’s some officialness there.

I don’t know what the Bibliotheca Sanctorum‘s sources are. Dunbar’s sources are  A Menology of England and Wales by Richard Stanton (which just says there’s no “proof of cultus for Ela), and Bucelinus’ Menologium Benedictinum. Also, Bishop Challoner’s A Memorial of Ancient British Piety, or , a British Martyrology, which says in the Supplement for February 1 that Ela did have cultus: “At Lacock in Wiltshire, the memory of that venerable Servant of God Ela, countess of Salisbury, who was so devoted to religion, that she founded two monasteries in one day, viz. that of the Carthusians at Henton in Wiltshire, and that of the Canonesses of S. Austin, at Lacock. In this latter leaving the world and all its vanities, she took the habit of religion, Anno 1236, was made abbess Anno 1240; resigned her office Anno 1257; and went to our Lord in a good old age, Anno 1261. [Dugdale.]” He also says there was once a parish church in Chester dedicated to a St. Ella, but that’s probably not her. “Dugdale” is referring to the author of Monasticon Anglicanum, of which more will be said below.

Anyway, Bishop Challoner was a bishop making a calendar, so… yeah, probably things got official there. A “Servant of God” doesn’t have a memorial day, though, so that would usually mean she was a Venerable or a Blessed.

Gabriel Bucelinus, the author of Menologium Benedictinum, lists Blessed Ela on February 1, with Henriquez as his source. Chrysostomo Henriquez, the author of Menologium Cisterciensis, calls her Blessed Ela, and also lists her day as February 1. But he’s notorious for thinking all sorts of people were Cistercians who weren’t. (Like St. Dominic’s brother Mannes, who was not only a Dominican but one of the first guys to sign on.) He also talks about a source called Catalogus Principum Feminarum, which supposedly listed illustrious Cistercian ladies, and he quotes from it; but alas, I haven’t found this book even on Worldcat. (Heroides Marianae, a book about illustrious women of rank who were also known to be Marian devotees, lists Ela twice, once for each religious house, because the author doesn’t realize that “Sarum” and “Salisburiae” are the same place.)

In this case, history tells us that Ela was a Cistercian fan, but the guys at Citeaux had put the temporary kibosh on chartering any more Cistercian monasteries for women, by the year that Ela decided to found a monastery for women. So she ended up founding a house of Augustinian canonesses, and later became one of them and their abbess too.

Anyway, Sir William Dugsdale’s big compendium, Monasticon Anglicanum, has most of the cool info about the houses she founded as well as Ela, including the story that William Talbot went looking around Normandy for where she’d been stashed by the De Vitre family. You also find out that “Ela” was her grandmother’s name, and that several of her descendants also bore it. “Ela” was either a short form of “Adela” or a transmogrification of “Helie” (her grandmother’s mom’s name).

Lacock Abbey surrendered its rights to King Henry VIII and was despoiled of its lead and lands and goodies, then given to some poor noble sap who had to make it watertight again. A couple of the Harry Potter movies were filmed there. It was used for corridors and the Herbology class.

 

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Happy St. Martin de Porres Day!

He was a short guy from Lima, Peru. He had a hard time getting into the Dominican convent, thanks to his illegitimate birth and mixed race, as well as not being very well to do. He fed the poor, answered the door, and scrubbed the floors. He also used his early training as a barber/surgeon to help the sick. He was a great friend of St. Rosa of Lima, with whom he shared a love of austerities, fasting, and mortification. You might have heard all this in school.

But he also got cats, dogs, mice, and rabbits to eat peacefully together; was frequently seen bilocating to Japan or the Philippines or Mexico to chat with absent friends; and once teleported an entire class of novices a few miles, so that they wouldn’t be late for lunch.

In short, he was a miracleworker and a locus of wonders.

Apparently he also helps the Cubs win. 😉

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The Mysterious Il Grigio!

St. John Bosco’s efforts to help the poor and teach kids trades were politically controversial, as well as threatening the livelihood of bandits and crime families in the Turin area. He also walked around in slums a lot, at sketchy hours, visiting sketchy people. So there were many occasions during his work when he was in physical danger of getting murdered or kidnapped.

And for those times, the Lord sent him a mysterious protector — a wolfish-looking gray dog who seemed to arrive from nowhere whenever needed and could vanish in a moment without anyone seeing him go. He seemed to smell out trouble in advance and know the plans of bad guys, accepted petting from friends but never accepted food from anyone, and over the course of more than thirty years, never seemed to sleep or age. He saved Bosco’s life on three occasions. He once vanished from a locked room. And after people stopped trying to kill Don Bosco, the dog never showed up again, except for once in the middle of a lonely stretch of nowhere when Bosco wished he had Il Grigio back to keep him company.

Don Bosco called him “the gray one” — “El Gris” in his native Piedmontese, or in Italian, “Il Grigio.” His friends suspected that Il Grigio was not just a helpful stray dog, but a guardian angel appearing in canine form.

But Il Grigio apparently didn’t end his work there.

In 1959, Blessed Pope John XXIII had St. John Bosco’s casket and remains brought to Rome to be venerated. On the way back from Rome, the Salesians made a stop at La Spezia. The idea was that the Brothers could venerate their founder on the down-low, and word was sent to wait for the van carrying the casket. This being a neighborhood in Italy, of course people found out that something was up. Soon townspeople were waiting alongside the Brothers.

And that was when a wolfish-looking gray dog showed up. One of the brothers got a stick and tried to drive him away from the main waiting area. (Some Italian street dogs are dangerous, to be fair.) The dog showed up again on another street corner, and approached a more dog-loving Brother, who petted him. The van arrived — and the dog began accompanying the casket wherever it went, as if assigned as an honor guard. Despite efforts to keep him out, the dog not only got into church, but seated himself directly under the casket and refused to move. He also prevented unauthorized people from touching the casket with his fierce growls.

At this point, people started to wonder about the dog, and the dog-loving Brother joked that it was Il Grigio. So they let the dog sit under the casket. The dog sat there patiently all day, quiet as a mouse, contented to have cloth drawn around the casket table to conceal the floor (and him) from view. When the Brothers were asked by mothers to lift up their babies and let them touch the casket, the dog did not growl or do anything aggressive.

When the viewing of the casket ended, he played with the schoolboys and some of the younger brothers. Then the dog followed the Brothers to their luncheon, but refused all food, just sitting in a corner. After lunch, he went away, and was later found in the church when it was unlocked, guarding the casket again. How did he get in? Nobody knew.

Then he followed the casket again as it went back into the van, waiting while the van waited. When the van drove away, he followed it through the streets until the third turn… at which point he mysteriously vanished.

And here is a photograph of this 1959 version of Il Grigio, hanging out by the van. You can see him in the bottom right corner, curled up in a ball. Was he the same dog or angel? Who knows? Certainly his appearance was fitting, whatever it meant.

Il Grigio in 1959, La Spezia, Italy

Il Grigio in 1959, La Spezia, Italy

ilgrigio1959.

Brother Renato Celato, who petted this new Il Grigio in 1959. This was my source for the 1959 Il Grigio photos.

Don Tiburzio Lupo’s account of the 1959 incident (in Italian).

One final note: In some of his papers, Tolkien said that Huan, the wolfhound of Valinor who guarded Luthien and helped Beren, was actually an example of how “many of the Maiar” would “robe themselves… like other lesser living things, as trees, flowers, beasts.” Huan at one point disguised himself as a werewolf to help Luthien sneak into Melkor’s stronghold. Nobody seems to have connected the story of Huan to the story of Il Grigio, but I think a Catholic guy like Tolkien could have gotten some ideas from Il Grigio!

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A Cave Church in France

Saint-Émilion, a famous Bordeaux wine town in the south of France, is named for a hermit saint who moved there from Brittany. He’s called St. Aemilianus or St. Emilian of Saujon, St. Emilian of Combes, and so on, for all the various places he could be said to have lived. He died in 767, and his feast is January 7. (Which is about the time when extremely new wine could be drunk.) But his day is also celebrated on November 16, probably because it’s not as cold and comes at harvest time. He’s a patron saint of wine merchants and businessmen. (The local patron of vintners and vineyard owners is St. Valery/Valerius, one of his disciples. He is depicted with the tools and outfit of a vineyard worker, including a water gourd.)

Anyway, this town was built around what was once a cave deep in the forest of Combes. It was a convenient place for a hermit to camp out. As usual with saintly hermits, people were drawn to the vicinity of his cave to consult him for holy advice, or even just to rubberneck. Men who wanted to be monks didn’t go home again, which is how a lot of hermitages suddenly become monasteries. And where there’s a monastery, there’s often a town that comes into being.

So there’s not much remote forest left at Saint-Émilion… although the vineyards are a perfectly good replacement… but the cave is still there. It doesn’t look like a cave from the outside, because the whole rock outcropping and underground cave system was gradually carved into a church, over the course of centuries. (Mostly in the 11th century.)

The place is called the Église Monolithe – “the single-stone church.” There are a few others in the world, particularly in Ethiopia.

Here’s a video of St. Emilian’s underground, monolithic church. It gives a much better idea of what the church is like than any of the photo pages I’ve seen. The big metal pillar things are modern reinforcements for the bell tower. The church doesn’t seem to be in use at this time, although there is still a place near the entrance to venerate St. Emilian. (His relics were lost, though.) The place where the guys are sitting and talking in the video used to be the altar area, and the video shows you a few of the stone carvings done to fancy up the church, which is otherwise pretty plain. (But beautiful and impressive.) There’s also tons of really nice aerial drone footage.

It’s worth it to turn on the auto-translate closed captions, but some of the stuff the expert says is pretty ignorant. A many-headed dragon in church isn’t a “force of nature;” it’s a Revelation or other Biblical reference.

That’s not a “figure with a stick” who “gains wings,” but either St. Michael defeating the dragon (very suitable for a high rocky outcropping), or more likely, a scene from the Book of Tobit, with Tobias fighting the river monster to get its liver to heal his father’s blindness, while St. Raphael stands by with his traveling stick. In the latter case, the meaning would be that you have to defeat evil to help heal others, and that your guardian angel will help you and give you advice. (Very suitable for both the monastery’s monks and for the lay parishioners.)

The church is believed to have been built as a sort of thanksgiving by knights returning from the Crusades, so the Book of Tobit theme of a dangerous journey would fit well. It lies on one of the French pilgrim routes to Santiago de Compostela.

As with a lot of medieval churches, the carvings up by the altar probably used to be painted, to differentiate them from the rest of the wall and to be able to add fine details.

A page about why the bell tower needs support (groundwater plus limestone), and how the support pillars were funded and improved. Also a couple nice photos I haven’t seen elsewhere, including one of the Revelation creature with a scorpion’s tail and woman-length hair. But it’s shooting an arrow, for some reason. The video above only shows the oldest part of the church, whereas there are actually three naves and a crypt!

This article talks about Holy Trinity Chapel, built directly on top of the original hermitage to keep it protected, with some gorgeous 13th century frescoes. It also talks about the hermitage itself, which contains indented stones which were traditionally used as a bed and a chair by the saint, as well as a holy spring. (Obviously dampness was part of the mortification.) She warns that you have to reserve a place in one of the underground tours if you want to see the church at all.

It also talks about how Saint-Emilion is allegedly the place where macarons/macaroons were first invented by the Ursuline sisters. You can buy macarons made according to the 1620 recipe.

This article in French talks a lot more about the history and frescoes in the other big medieval church in town, the collegial church of the Augustinian canons, including the fact that its big 14th-15th century enlargement and bell tower were mostly funded by a papal nephew, Cardinal Gaillard de la Mothe.  The remains of his cardinal palace are also in town. (The church also features a medieval pet door for a cat who notoriously hated being in church during offices and Mass.)

In the long-running anime Detective Conan (aka Case Closed), the supporting character “Jodie Saintemillion” is actually named Saint-Emilion, in a reference to the wines made there.

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Amputation Miracles: St. Julius of Novara

Apparently the way to find amputation miracles is to use a relevant verb (like “amputavit” (although I think there are other verbs for when bits just fall off, and I’m not sure how to search for miracles involving people born without something)) and a relevant verb in the accusative (like “pedem,” foot, or “pollicem,” thumb).

First off, St. Julius of Novara was a real early Christian guy (4th century and the tippy-top of the 5th), and his brother St. Julian the deacon was a real guy too, according to archaeological finds at their traditional burial place in Gozzano. They are better known in Italy as San Giulio d’Orta and San Giuliano.

Their Vita says that they built one hundred churches during their lifetimes. Those of us who live in US dioceses where there were guys tasked with building churches for population booms will not find this number too farfetched.

According to their Vita, the first church in Brebbia, Italy was built by them, and that’s where this miracle took place. Unfortunately their Vita was written in the 7th or 8th century, so it’s not well documented; but hey, it was reliable on the burial site. (And of course there were times when a vita was based on local archives as well as legends and oral tradition; and oral tradition isn’t necessarily wrong.)

From the “Vita SS. Julii et Juliani.” Collected in the Acta Sanctorum, Januarii vol. III, January 31st, p. 718.

Also, another miracle happened at the place which was called ‘Beblas’ [Brebbia].

When they had set about the work [to build the church], one of the men amputated his thumb, having unexpectedly put his hand ahead of time on an iron tool which is called in the people’s tongue a “hatchet” [dextrale]. And so much gore flowed forth from it that the man lost his reason. The common people associated with St. Julius were eager to point this out to him.

So the holy Julius, coming to him right away, searched for that same thumb, saying, “Bring the finger to me which was taken off.”

Having received it, he put it into its place; and after making the Sign of the Cross, it was restored as it was before – an entire hand [restituta est, sicut antea fuerat, integra manus].

And taking the iron tool, the man of God gave it into his hand, saying, “Work and take courage, in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

In Italy, San Giulio is the patron saint of builders and stone-masons. The feast of Ss. Julius and Julian is on January 31, and there is a great Mass held on Isola San Giulio on that day, which is attended by many people in the building trades. The builders traditionally give an offering of a lamb decorated with ribbons, which is then blessed, roasted, and feasted upon by all the visitors. (Isola San Giulio isn’t a very big parish, so it’s a case of Bring Your Own Dinner. The picturesque bit is that they actually get to bring the lamb into church to be offered and blessed, whereas your average feast featuring a blessed pig/cow/goat roast has to keep the livestock or ex-livestock outside.)

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