July 10 is the commemoration of the seventh-century Saint Etto (Hetto, Zé), whom tradition links to the great Irish missionary Saint Fursey. Etto laboured in Belgium, where sources name him as an Irishman and where his memory is still very much cherished. John Montague, in his book The Saints and Martyrs of Ireland
, notes this interesting historical tidbit:
In 1920, Cardinal Mercier of Belgium sent a famous letter to the Irish Bishops at the time of the Irish Troubles, and named Etto as one of the Irish missionaries to whom Belgium was especially indebted.
Canon O'Hanlon brings us a full account below of Saint Etto's life and labours, including a history of the translation of his relics. I was struck by the agricultural element of the saint's cult in Belgium, in particular how his intercession was sought for farm animals, especially cattle. This brings to mind how people here related to Saint Brigid, who, like Etto is often portrayed with a cow.
ST. ETTO, HETTO, OR ETHON, BISHOP AND CONFESSOR.
AFTER the Church of Christ had been founded, and when Christians were redeemed through his precious blood; then her illustrious children, whether as Martyrs, Apostles, Doctors, Virgins or Confessors, began to exhibit those virtues and labours, which served to extend her sway over the hearts of men. Several holy missionaries banded together for this purpose, and left the shores of Ireland for more distant countries. Among those was Etto, and he became a saint illustrious for his apostolic zeal and miracles. The particulars of his Acts are only to be gleaned from popular tradition, nor do we know that any very ancient written accounts regarding him are to be found. No doubt, there are several inaccuracies that have been incorporated with the more authentic accounts, yet even for those incorrect statements, reasons may be assigned, and allowances must be made.
A Life of this saint has come down to us, but it does not appear to be a very ancient one. The date of its composition is uncertain, and it is supposed to have been the composition of a monk at Liesse. It has a Prologue of the Author, and then follows a narrative of public events, connected with the period of Etto's arrival on the Continent, as also the subsequent traditional accounts, regarding his mission and career. His offices and the Martyrologies hardly serve to throw any additional lights on his history. In French, this saint is called Zé; but, in the ancient Lives, his name is written Etto or Ethon. Sometimes, too, he is named Hetto. It was Colgan's purpose to have published his biography, at the 10th of July. In the "Natales Sanctorum Belgii," there are some notices of St. Etto, as also in Miraeus. The Bollandists have special accounts of this holy man. A commentary precedes his Acts. These follow, with the author's prologue, in two chapters and seventeen paragraphs. His Acts have been published from a Manuscript, belonging to the Abbey of Marchiennes. This has been collated with two other Codices; one of these having been in the hands of D. Pruedhomme, a Canon of Cambrai, and another belonged to the collection at Alnensis. In the "Acta Sanctorum Belgii," Etto is particularly commemorated. Some notices of him are to be met with, in the work of Bishop Challoner. The Petits Bollandistes also have an account of St. Etton or Zé, at this date. There is a notice of St. Etto, likewise, in Rev. S. Baring-Gould's "Lives of the Saints."
St. Etto was a native of Ireland; but, regarding his family descent, and earlier years, we have no account. He was probably born in the early part of the seventh century. There he was instructed in a knowledge of the Scriptures, and trained in the principles of virtue. This holy person is said to have been in Britain, to confer with many saints, that then flourished in these Islands; but, whether he joined St. Fursey there or in Ireland is not known. As we have already seen, in the Life of St. Fursey, that a certain Count named Madelgarius, surnamed Vincent, and who had gone to Ireland, waited upon that celebrated missionary in England, and succeeded in persuading him to visit Gaul, where he afterwards founded the monastery of Lagny. At this period, that country was just beginning to recover from the devastations of the Huns and Vandals, with other barbarous invaders. With his brothers Foillan and Ultan, as also with Mimbolus, Eloquius, Bertuin, Fredegandus, Adalgisus and Gobban, disciples of St. Fursey, Etto was one of those apostolic preachers, who, in the seventh century, went forth to spread the Gospel on the Continent. They are said to have accompanied Madelgarius and his wife St. Waldetrude, when these returned to France. The great desire of the holy missionaries was to visit Rome, in the first instance; most probably to receive the necessary jurisdiction and approval, for the tasks which they had proposed to accomplish. About the middle of the seventh century, they arrived in France, and Etto thence made a pilgrimage to Rome, but whether in company with St. Fursey or not seems to be uncertain. While he was visiting the tombs of the Apostles, it is said, that he received episcopal consecration. By Molanus, he is styled "Hiberniensis Episcopus." Afterwards, he returned to France. With St. Fursey, it is stated, that Etto lived for a time at Lagny, and that he carried the word of God afterwards into the Low Countries. He passed into those parts with six other companions, and in the company of St. Waldetrude. Among the holy men, who went to preach in the Low Countries with St. Etto, or about the same time, was St. Bertuin, a Bishop. He built an oratory, at Maloigne, upon the Sambre. After his return from Rome, Etto chose for his abode a solitary place, near the little river Corbriol. Like many of the primitive saints, he had a Divine inspiration, that he was destined to evangelise the people, in that part of the diocese of Cambrai. St. Etto settled on a little stream at Thierache, near the town of Avesnes. There he cleared away the brambles, and built a cell for his occupation.
At first, he experienced some difficulties and opposition, owing to a man named Jovinus, who laid claim to the land, he being unwilling that a stranger should take possession of it. Jovinus railed at the holy man, nor would he enter upon any terms of compromise, until convinced by a miracle, that he should yield, and make an humble apology to Etto. There our saint erected a church, under the patronage of St. Peter, chief of the Apostles. He used to visit the Abbey of Hautmont, where under St. Ansbert, Madelgarius lived and there he met St. Amandus, St. Wasno, and St. Humbert. There, too, St. Ursmar and his assistant bishop Erminus met him; as also St. Wasnulph, St. Gissen, St. Aldegunde, and St. Gertrude. Besides these, St. Foillan and St. Ultan came to meet him from the monastery of Fosse, as likewise many other celebrated fathers of the Church, who were living in France during his time.
Throughout all that region, St. Etto zealously laboured to spread the Gospel seed. As a light placed on a pedestal cannot be hidden, so did theme of his virtues spread on all sides. To the place of his abode came numerous visitors, to ask his counsel in spiritual affairs, as also to obtain the succours of religion. But, Etto was exceedingly humble in his own estimation, nor could he bear that others should think highly concerning him. One of the miracles recorded of our saint is that one day, and while walking in a field, he saw a mute cow-herd sleeping. Touching him gently with a staff, the man arose, and immediately found the use of speech. Fiscau or Fescau, afterwards a priory, and depending on the Abbey of Liessy, near Avesnes, in Hainault, was the place noted in connexion with St. Etto's demise. Here he lived for a considerable time, constantly engaged in prayer, and crucified to the world. Daily did he offer the Holy Victim in Sacrifice to the Lord. He became a father of the poor, a protector of the widow, an aid of the orphan, a consoler of those in sorrow and tribulation, aransomer of captives, and an intercessor for all who were reduced in circumstances. Finding his last days on earth about to close, St. Etto called his disciples to him, and then gave them special instructions, to observe the precepts of charity and peace towards one another, as also to fulfil with great care the duties of a Christian and a religious life. Receiving from him an intimation, that he should soon leave this world, his monks were moved to tears, and they naturally gave way to sorrow. However, they felt consoled when Etto imparted a special blessing on them. For immediate preparation, to meet death, the holy man redoubled his prayers and vigils, fasting with still greater strictness and giving alms most bountifully. The night before his departure, Etto had a vision regarding the place of his sepulture; and, on waking, he desired one of his friends to meet another, who was then in an adjoining wood, preparing a coffin, although he knew not for whom it was destined. This coffin that man was engaged in bringing away on a cart, drawn by a bullock. The coffin was brought to Etto, who had desired to see it. Afterwards, he devoutly received the Body and Blood of our Lord in the Holy Sacrament. Then, in the presence of his disciples, who were standing round, his soul passed away to the company of the Holy Angels and Saints. He is said to have departed, in the sixty-fifth year of his age. His death has been assigned to about a.d. 670.
On the 10th of July, various ecclesiastical authors commemorate St. Etto. His feast has been noted, in the Belgian, Gallican and Benedictine Martyrologies. Thus, Saussay, Molanus, Miraeus, Ferrarius, Wion, Dorgan, Menard, Bucelin, Castellan,and Baldericus, have notices of him. In Convaeus' list, at the same date, we find Etto set down, as "Epis. Fasciaci et Laetiarum patronus." He is noticed, likewise, by Thomas Dempster. His festival was celebrated on this day, with a proper office, in the church of Buinvilliers. There is extant, likewise, an office with Eight Lessons, and these profess to give the Acts of St. Etto, but some of them are only foolish legends.
The forty-second Bishop of Cambrai, Nicholas, in 1162, issued a diploma, whereby certain possessions were confirmed to the abbacy of Leisse, with a provision for the maintenance of so many monks as might be required to serve the church of Dompierre, and a prohibition against removing the body of the saint from that place. Other donations to Dompierre are on record. The monastery of Fiscau, was in the village of Dompierre. There and in all the surrounding country, St. Etto's name was held in very special reverence. However, the disturbances occasioned by the new Reformation caused his body to be removed to a place of greater security. His relics were translated to Mons, with those of other saints, during the wars about the middle of the sixteenth century. They were temporarily placed in a house of refuge, belonging to that Abbey. Afterwards, when order had been restored, St. Etto's remains were removed to the Abbey of Liesse, or Liessies, a suitable receptacle having been prepared for their reception, while the coffin or shrine was newly decorated and restored, as time's effacing traces had begun to show marks of fading and decay. Other smaller reliquaries of the saint were repaired at the same time. To this resting-place, St. Etto's body was translated, by Louis de Blois, then its Abbot, and placed in the church of his monastery, on the 22nd day of June, a.d. 1559. This establishment was subsequently an abbey of Canons Regular. There the body was kept, with great veneration, and St. Etto's feast has become a great solemnity, on the anniversary of his death, 10th of July. In like manner is he commemorated, in the priory of Fiscau. On that day, the people assembled in great numbers, and assisted at Mass, while a vast procession on foot and on horseback accompanied a shrine containing the relics of our saint. On that day, too, the people abstained from servile works, regarding it as a superior feast. The office of his Natalis was recited in the parish, and it was sung in the monastery of Leisse, during the entire octave. However, in the church of Dompierre, the body of St. Etto is now preserved, and there is a tomb on which he is figured with a mitre, a cross in his hand, and clothed in episcopal vestments. At some distance from the church, there is a fountain, which bears the name of St. Zé. In the parish of Dompierre, for many ages past, as also in that of Buinvilliers, diocese of Arras, a confraternity has been established in honour of St. Zé. The latter was ordered to be erected, by the bishop of Arras in a letter, written June 16th, 1630; but, its inauguration was deferred, owing to the fact of two churches being in the same town—the congregation of each contending for their respective church as being the parochial one. An arm-bone of St. Etto is preserved at Buinvilliers, near Arras. St. Etto is represented with oxen at his feet, as he is invoked by cow-herds and cattle-drivers. A copperplate engraving of this character has been inserted in his Acts, as furnished by the Bollandists.
Since the time St. Etto departed from this life to our Lord's happy inheritance, in the seventh century, the people who lived after him had great faith in his intercession. Those who had been afflicted with various diseases were taught to believe, that through a devout invocation of his patronage, the Almighty would be pleased to remove their ailments and to prolong their lives. Even he was supposed to hear the prayers of country people, who intreated him to avert distempers from their cattle and other animals.