Tuesday 30 August 2016

Saint Fiacre of Meaux, August 30

August 30 is the feast day of an Irish saint whose life was mostly spent outside this country - Fiacre of Meaux. I have previously posted a twentieth-century account of the saint here but below is a paper from 1876. The author is the then Bishop of Ossory, later to be Cardinal Archbishop of Sydney, Patrick Francis Moran (1830-1911). Cardinal Moran took an active interest in the history of the early Irish church and his many writings reflect the climate of the national revival which was in full swing during his lifetime. In his account of Saint Fiacre, PFM brings together much of the traditional lore associated with the saint and gives a place also to his sister, Saint Syra. I was interested too by the seventeenth-century dimension to the cult of Saint Fiacre, in particular the visits of Irish exiles to his shrine.


St. FIACHRA, better known by the name of Fiacre, by which he was designated on the Continent, was born about the year 590, of a princely family in the north of Connaught; but renouncing the honours and applause of the world, sought in retreat and solitude the highest paths of perfection. Whilst as yet in the world, charity was one of his distinctive virtues. A poor man one day solicited an alms for the love of God. Fiachra told his attendant to give him any money that he might have, and the attendant pretended to do so. The saint, however, fearing lest any mistake might have been made, went after the poor man and asked him how he had fared. He then learned that the attendant’s money being exhausted by preceding alms, nothing had been given to him; whereupon the saint, taking off the rich mantle which he wore, bestowed it on the poor man. This same virtue continued to characterize St. Fiachra throughout the whole of his subsequent career.

Having resolved to devote himself to a religious life, he put himself under the care of St. Cuanna, who was at this time famed for learning and sanctity, and attracted numerous disciples to his monastery at Kilcoona, on the shore of Loch Orbsen. Being ordained priest, St. Fiachra was filled with the desire to serve God in solitude, and therefore, quitting his native district, and the school of St. Cuanna, he fixed his first hermitage on the banks of the Nore, and for many years lived there leading a most holy and austere life. The spot thus hallowed by the virtues and penitential austerities of our saint is still known by the name Kill-Fiachra, or Kilfera, and is situate on the west bank of the Nore, about three miles below Kilkenny. The memory of St. Fiachra is honoured there on the 30th of August, the same day on which his festival is marked in the Martyrologies of Marianus O' Gorman and of Donegal. The outlines of St. Fiachra’s old church or cell may be easily traced, and fragments of its stone-work are scattered through the adjoining burial-ground. A little to the south of Kilfera is the holy well of St. Fiachra.

This silent retreat had for our saint all the charms of a paradise. His virtues, however, soon became known, and many disciples flocked around him; and it seemed as if greater honour and reverence awaited him in his retreat, than would have attended him in the princely inheritance which he had abandoned. He resolved, therefore, to seek in distant countries the solitude which was denied him at home; and thus it came to pass, in the words of the Martyrology of Donegal, that he “ brought a blessing to France." St Fiachra remained for some time in Iona, attracted thither by the fame of the virtues and miracles of its holy founder. Continuing his journey towards France, the vessel in which he sailed encountered a terrible storm at sea, but when all seemed lost, the tempest was stilled by the prayers of our saint. St. Faro, who was at this time Bishop of Meaux, had opened a hospice for pilgrims at the gates of his episcopal city. He belonged to the highest nobility of France, and for several years had ranked among the richest of the courtiers, as well as among the bravest of the leaders of the armies of King Clothaire ; now, however, as bishop, all his possessions and influence were placed at the service of religion and of the poor. At the hospice which he endowed none were so welcome as the pilgrims from Erin; for St. Faro attributed all his worldly prosperity, as well as his ecclesiastical calling, to the blessing which the great Irish missioner Columbanus, in requital for the hospitality which was shown him, had bestowed on his parents and household. St. Fiachra, journeying on whither God might summon him, entered this hospice at Meaux, and under the garb of a poor pilgrim, lived there for some years wholly devoted to the most perfect practices of piety. His relative, St Kilian, however, when making a pilgrimage to Rome, entered the same hospice, and made known our saint’s rank. Fiachra would willingly have fled elsewhere, but Faro asked him not to leave a spot where he had found such happiness and peace, and offered him a site for a hermitage at a short distance from Meaux, with a grant of as much land as he would himself surround with a fosse in one day. St. Fiachra selected for his enclosure an adjoining desert tract called Broilus (which name in mediaeval Latin means a small wood), known in later times as Breuil, and now called Brie, situated on an elevated position not far from the banks of the Marne; and whilst he traced its boundaries with a wooden stake, a fosse was miraculously formed along the track. In the retreat thus miraculously enclosed, St. Fiacre spent his whole time in prayer and manual labour. His food consisted of roots and wild herbs, and in the heart of France he renewed the austerities by which SS. Paul and Anthony and Hilarion had sanctified the deserts of the East. Like all the great saints of Ireland he cherished a special devotion to the holy Mother of God, and it is commemorated in his Acts, that close to his cell he erected an oratory in her honour, oratorio in honorem Beatae Mariae constructo. Many holy disciples soon flocked to Breuil to emulate the penitential spirit, and to copy the virtues, of our saint. He obliged them to devote themselves in great part to manual labour, cultivating the garden which he had enclosed; and the fruit of their industry was applied to the maintenance of pilgrims and to the relief of captives. After the discovery of his place of concealment, deputies came to Meaux, requesting the saint to return home, and to assume the government of his native principality, which happened to be then vacant. Fiachra asked for a little time to deliberate on a matter of such importance, and in the meanwhile prayed to God that He might in His mercy visit him with some malady that would not permit his return. The next day the saint was found covered with leprosy, and the messengers, seeing that their mission was frustrated, at once took their departure from Meaux. It is also related in the saint’s life that he was visited at Breuil by his sister St. Syra. She had from her infancy been remarkable for sanctity, frequently passing the whole night in prayer prostrate before the crucifix, and practising the most rigorous austerities. With three companions she set out for Meaux, and having received from her brother many lessons of heavenly wisdom, entered the Monastery of Faramoutiers, then governed by St. Burgundofara, sister of St. Faro, and after some years proceeded to Troyes, where she ruled a monastery as abbess for a long time, and guided many souls to God. In an ancient hymn, composed in her praise, she is thus addressed:

“ O Syra. virgo pura,
Regis Scotorum filia,
Sancti Fiacrii soror,
Tu es Stella eximia,
Praefulgens Virginum gemma,
Campaniae laus, et honor,
Ad sepulchrum confagiunt
Tuum populi, et sentiunt
Sanitatis remedium.”

The festival of St. Syra is kept at Troyes on the 8th of June, and before the French Revolution there were several convents in France that honoured her as patron. St. Fiachra died at his hermitage about the year 670, and his shrine was soon honoured by many miracles. One of these is specially recorded in the French Life of St. Fiacre. A farmer of Montigny (Seine-et-Marne) was proceeding on pilgrimage to the shrine of our saint, bringing with him his two children, who were infirm. The horse stumbled when passing a river, and the children were precipitated into the stream. It seemed impossible to rescue them, as the current was so rapid; but the father having invoked St. Fiachra’s aid, the saint appeared on the water, and taking the children by the hand, lead them to the bank in safety.

St. Fiachra is at present venerated as special patron at Brie, about four miles from the city of Meaux, and also as one of the chief patrons of the diocese of Meaux; and he is also honoured throughout France as the particular patron of gardeners and of the Fiacre-drivers. Indeed, the French cab is said to have derived its name fiacre from being specially called into requisition in early times for the use of pilgrims hastening to his shrine. More than thirty churches in France are also dedicated to our saint. About three miles from Brie is St. Fiacre’s well. It is enclosed in an oratory, which was rebuilt in 1852. Pilgrims also flock to his holy well at Monstrelet, near Boufflers, which is famed for miraculous cures. The other chief places of pilgrimage in honour of our saint are Aubignan, in the diocese of Avignon; Buss, in the diocese of Arras; Ramecourt and Dizy-le-Gros, in the diocese of Soissons; Ouzoer-les-Champs, in the diocese of Orleans; Bovancourt, in the diocese of Rheims; Cuy-Saint-Fiacre, in the diocese of Rouen; Saint Fiacre, in the diocese of Nantes; Saint Fiacre, near Guincamp, in the diocese of St. Brieuc ; and Radenac, in the diocese of Vannes. His festival is kept in France, as in Ireland, on the 30th of August.

The proper lessons for our saint in the Breviary of Meaux inform us, that he adopted in France the strict rule of the early Irish monasteries, which prohibited any female from crossing the threshold of his oratory or hermitage. A royal lady of France attempted on one occasion, through curiosity, to violate this rule, but was at once struck down with a violent sickness, to which the physicians thenceforth applied the name of “ St. Fiacre’s malady."

The shrine of St. Fiachra was for centuries one of the most famous in France, and many pilgrims resorted thither even from distant nations. We read in the Annals of the Trinitarian Order; that the holy founder of that order, St. John of Valois, cherished a special devotion for St. Fiachra, and, not satisfied with emulating his virtues at a distance, wished to erect for himself a hermitage as near as he could to Breuil, that thus the sight of the spot where our saint had lived, and where his relics were preserved, might be a constant stimulus to piety. In later times the Apostle of France, St. Vincent de Paul, also made a pilgrimage to St. Fiachra’s shrine. When, in the fourteenth century, Edward the Biack Prince ravaged the country around Meaux, the sanctuary at Breuil alone was spared. He caused, however, the shrine of the saint to be opened, and extracted a portion of the relics which he desired to bring with him to England. When passing through Normandy, he deposited these relics on an altar at Montloup, not far distant from Toumay, where there was a chapel erected in honour of St. Fiachra, but no strength of man was able afterwards to remove the relics from that altar. The death of the Prince soon after was popularly regarded as a punishment for his want of due reverence for the shrine of our saint. Henry V. of England also visited Breuil after the battle of Agincourt. He ordered the sanctuary of St. Fiachra to be respected, and declared that he had nowhere seen so great devotion as that shown by the faithful to our saint. Among the other royal visits may be mentioned that of Louis XIV., who, with his Queen and the Court, went thither on pilgrimage when returning from Strasburg in 1693.

When the sword of persecution forced many Catholic families of Ireland to seek a home on the Continent, and many of her bravest sons to enter the armies of France or Spain, the shrine of St. Fiacre, at Meaux, became a favorite resort of the Irish exiles; and it would appear that each year on his recurring festival, they organized a special pilgrimage in his honour. Father Hay, in his Scotia Sacra (page 39), tells us that when sub-prior of the Benedictine Monastery of Essoines, situated on the banks of the river Marne, he himself had visited this sanctuary, and adds some verses from three Latin poems, which he found hanging on the walls around the altar of our saint. Each poem bore the heading, “ Divo Fiacrio Carmen,” i.e., “ a poem in honour of St. Fiacre.” The first thus commenced:

“ Regis Hiberni generosa proles,
Fortis Eugeni soboles Fiacri
Sancte, materno gremio corusca
Syderis instar.”

This is followed by thirty-eight other verses, and at the end is added, “ This was sung by the Irish pilgrims in the year 1679.” The second poem is still longer, having 123 verses, with the note, “offered by an Irish choir in the year of our Lord 1680.” The third has 206 verses, and has at the close, “An Irish choir offered this in 1681.”

The greater part of the relics of our saint were scattered and the oratory and shrine of St. Fiacre, at Breuil, were demolished in the revolutionary storm which laid waste the fairest districts of France at the close of the last century. From the time of the saint’s death his relics seem to have been famed for miracles. As early as the eleventh century we find it commemorated that the fame of the miracles performed there attracted many pilgrims to his shrine. Fulck de Beauvais, who flourished in that age, in his metrical life of St. Faro, Bishop of Meaux, mentions as one of the chief glories of that saint’s pontificate that he granted Breuil to Fiachra (who in Latin is oftentimes called Fefrus) and thus rendered the whole diocese of Meaux illustrious for miracles : —

“ Heredem Fefrum dedit in quibus esse beatum,
Huic Broilum tribuit, qui templum condidit illic,
Hic duxit vitam, vitam finivit ibidem,
Meldica nunc signis floret provincia Fefri.”

In the beginning of the reign of St. Louis of France the first solemn translation of our saint’s relics took place. By his munificence they were placed in a rich shrine, and thenceforward each year, on the Sunday after Pentecost, the anniversary of this translation, a portion of the relics was borne in procession through Breuil. Pope Gregory the IX. granted special indulgences for those, who, on his festival-day, would visit the saint’s relics at Breuil. In the year 1562 the shrine and relics of our saint were removed to the sanctuary of St. Burgundofara in Meaux, the better to preserve them from the fury of the Huguenots, and after a little time, at the request of the civic authorities, were deposited in the cathedral of that city. The pilgrimages, however, continued to be made to Breuil as heretofore, and when religious peace was restored in France every effort was made by the inhabitants to have the treasure of the saint's relics restored to them. All that they could obtain, however, was a portion of these precious remains, encased in a silver shrine, presented to the sanctuary at Breuil by the Bishop of Meaux, in 1649. As regards the shrine in the Cathedral of Meaux, it was so richly ornamented by Queen Anne of Austria that it was considered second to none in France, before the period of the French Revolution. The illustrious Bossuet delivered some of his beautiful discourses on our saint’s festival, presenting him to the faithful as “a model of the Christian spirit of solitude, of silence, and of constant prayer;” and he loved to repeat that their cathedral “was enriched by the precious treasure of his relics.” In Mabillon’s time Breuil was still frequented by pilgrims, and miracles continued to be there wrought at the saint’s shrine. He thus writes in his Annals of the Benedictine Order (vol. i. p. 314) “Sane vix ullus alius etiam nunc celebrior miraculorum patrator in Gallia: vix ullus alius locus amplius frequentatus a peregrinis qui istuc voti causa undique confluunt.” Only small portions of these relics escaped the fury with which the revolutionists at the close of the last century raged against the shrines of the saints; and of these some at present enrich the parochial church at Brie; others are preserved in the cathedral and other churches throughout the diocese of Meaux. The parochial church of Brie retains also the large block of stone on which St. Fiachra used to rest, and which bears the impress of the saint; as also the ancient wooden case in which the relics were at one time preserved. The sites of the enclosure and of the saint’s hermitage are traditionally pointed out, and may easily be traced, but no remains can now be seen of the ancient buildings.

The late learned Protestant Bishop of Brechin, Dr. Forbes, having given a short notice of our saint in his Kalendars of Scottish Saints, remarks that this commemoration of St. Fiachra in France “suggests an allusion to that marvellous Irish Christian colonization which is one of the most remarkable facts in the history of Christianity, and to which, till the present century, scanty justice has been done. The daughter Church of Gaul, Ireland, soon returned to bless that nation from whom she had received the faith, and not that nation only, but all the West of Europe, from Iceland to Tarentum, felt its power. Combatting Arianism in Lombardy, paganism in England and Germany; cultivating letters at the court of Charlemagne, and physical science in the see of Salzburg; teaching Greek at Chiemsee, and copying the precious manuscripts of antiquity at Bobbio and Luxeuil: the (Irish) clergy grasped the lamp of religion, as it fell from the hands of the worn-out Roman races; and the austere sanctity of Irish monasticism — an austerity which, from existing rules, we know to have surpassed that of St. Benedict himself — asserted its footing in the different nations of the Continent, of which many of the patron saints belong to this family. In the Vosges and the Jura we have St Fridolin; at Luxeuil and Bobbio, St. Columbanus; in Switzerland, St. Gall; at Salzburg, St. Virgilius; in Thuringia, St. Kilian; at Lucca, St. Frigidian; at Fiesole, St. Donatus; and at Taranto, St Cathaldus.”— page 341.

St. Fiachra is also honoured in Italy, especially at Florence, where a noble chapel was erected in his honour by the Grand Duke in the year 1627, and was again richly adorned by the then reigning Duke towards the close of the seventeenth century, at whose request some relics of the saint, the gift of the illustrious Bishop of Meaux, Benigne Bossuet, were translated thither with great pomp in the year 1695. Since that time St. Fiachra has been reckoned among the chief patrons of Tuscany.

When St. Fiachra was proceeding to France, if not at an earlier period of his life, he seems to have stopped for some time in Scotland, and his memory was long cherished in the churches of that kingdom. In Stewart’s Metrical Chronicle of Scotland, our saint appears as “Sanct Feacar,” and again under the name of “ Fiancorus.” The parish of Nigg, situate on the opposite side of the river Dee from Aberdeen, had St. Fiacre for patron, and its church was called “ St. Fiacer’s Church.” The ancient burial-ground also bore his name; his holy well was corruptly called St. Fithoc’s well, and the bay near which it stands, St. Ficker’s Bay. From these corruptions of the name arose other still more curious forms; thus, for instance, from Fithoc , arose Mofithog and Mofuttach: and we find that in the Kalendar of Camerarius, our saint is entered as S. Mofutacus, whilst in an ancient Dunkeld Litany he is invoked as St. Futtach. All these various forms, however, of the name of St. Fiachra only serve to show how widespread was the veneration of this great saint, and how generally he was honoured throughout the churches of Scotland.

P. F. M.

The Irish Ecclesiastical Record, Volume XII(1876), 361-368.

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