17 March 2012

17 March - Saint Gertrude; Champ

If Saint Joseph’s day is clear,
we shall get a fertile year
[A Somerset rhyme which refers to Saint Joseph of Arimathea, a popular saint in that county, whose feast is today]

If the cow does not walk in clover on Saint Gertrude’s day, then will she yet walk in snow.

If it is fine weather on St. Gertrude’s day, it is time to begin spring planting.

Sow the seeds of the Sweet Pea flower before sunrise on St. Patrick’s day, for larger and more fragrant blossoms.


“At Nivelle in Brabant, St. Gertrude, a virgin of noble birth.  Because she despised the world, and during her whole life practiced all kinds of good works, she deserved to have Christ for her spouse in heaven.”

Today is the feast of Saint Gertrude, Abbess of Nivelles, born in 626 to Pepin of Landen (Belgium), Mayor of the Palace, and Saint Itta; her elder sister was Saint Begga of Andenne (ancestress of the Carolingians), her younger brother was Saint Bavo of Ghent, and her god-daughter was Saint Gudule of Brabant.

With a family like that, what else can you do but establish religious foundations and be an abbess?

She did, and she was, and was very good at both.

After the death of her father when she was 13, her mother erected a Benedictine double monastery (both men and women, separated of course) at Nivelles, and eventually appointed her daughter as abbess.  Young Gertrude ruled the monastery capably and well, but her first love was study, especially that of the Holy Scriptures, and after her mother’s death, entrusted the management of temporal things to a group of competent monks and nuns and gave herself to study and to building churches and hospices for travelers.  She died in an odor of sanctity on 17 March 659, at the age of 33, worn out by her many austerities.

According to William Jones, in his Credulities Past and Present (1898), “St. Gertrude of Nivelles is the patroness of rat-catchers, and in the Ardennes, when rats become unusually troublesome in a house, it is sufficient to write the following words on morsels of paper, which must afterwards be well buttered: “Rats et rates, vous qui avez mangé le cœur de Sainte Gertrude, je vous conjure, en son nom, de vous en aller dans la plaine de Rocroi.  There are other forms, but all that is essential is to adjure the rats, or the great king of the rats, to “remember” St. Gertrude… It is necessary to name a place to which the rats who are to be expelled can retire, and to take care that, if there be any running water in the way, there is a bridge over which they may pass.”

[Of course, the current occupants of the place to which we adjure the rats to retire might not have charitable thoughts about us, as they go about buttering their own pieces of paper]

The Dictionary of Christian Biography (1880) says that she is “patron saint of travelers, pilgrims, cats, of several towns in the Netherlands, against fever and against damage by rats and mice, especially the out of door sorts [field mice].  She is represented with rats and mice at her feet, or running up her pastoral staff, or on her dress.”

[She is also said to be the patroness of the souls of the recently deceased and of those in Purgatory, which I have only been able to trace back to the writings of Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould (1870s).  I keep a salt-shaker handy when reading Rev. Sabine.  He wasn’t overly scrupulous at times in his ‘facts’.]

Ah, but this is the Great Day of the Irish, is it not?  Well, then, let us give the life of Belgian Saint Gertrude a bit of Irish flavor.  In the article “St. Fursey’s Life and Visions” (The Irish Monthly, Volume 12, 1884), the anonymous author writes:

“During his mission in Austrasia St. Fursey became acquainted with one of the most remarkable and saintly personages of the time, Gertrude, daughter of Pepin of Landen, and Abbess of Nivelles.  After the death of Pepin (variously stated as having occurred between 640 and 649), his widow, St. Itta, founded the monastery just named, and retired to it with her daughter, whom, though young in years, she soon appointed abbess.  Gertrude held large territorial possessions in her own right, and being closely connected with magnates of the day, exercised a wide personal influence.  Simple and mortified in her manner of life, as became a religious, she was deeply versed in the Sacred Scriptures, munificent in her charities, and great in all her undertakings.

Under her rule, Nivelles was constituted as a double monastery, with an order of canons to perform priestly functions, instruct the nuns in spiritual matters, and manage the temporal affairs of the establishment.  Asylums for widows and orphans, and houses for the reception of pilgrims and travellers, were supported by the monastery and entrusted to the discipline of the canons and canonesses of the institute.  In a word, the monastery of Nivelles became the centre of an immense field of religious work, extending throughout Brabant and the neighbouring countries; and the saintly abbess exercised over the mother-house and its dependencies a regal sway, directed by singular wisdom and prudence.  It is easy to imagine the veneration in which St. Gertrude held the Irish abbot and his band of missioners, so rigidly austere in their life, so magnificent in their self devotion, so marvellously successful in spreading the light of faith.  She consulted St. Fursey in weighty matters, and aided him in the work of his apostolate.

After the death of St. Fursey the abbess sent to England to invite his brothers, St. Foillan and St. Ultan, to come over and instruct her community in sacred psalmody.  "For," says Frederick Ozanam, "the Irish excelled in the ecclesiastical chant, and it was among them that the Frankish princesses sought masters to teach the nuns of their monasteries to sing in a becoming manner the praises of God.  The invitation was accepted. Foillan remained at Nivelle, but Ultan after some time was appointed Abbot of Fosses, a monastery which St. Gertrude had built and endowed for Irish monks.  When the abbess felt that her last hour was approaching, she sent one of the canons of her monastery to Fosses to ask St. Ultan when she must die.  "Then," to quote the Rev. S. Baring-Gould, '' the saint replied to the messenger, ‘To-morrow, during the celebration of the Holy Mass, Gertrude, the spouse of Jesus Christ, will depart this life, to enjoy that which is eternal.  Tell her not to fear, for St. Patrick, accompanied by blessed angels, will receive her soul into glory.'  And it was so, that after she had received extreme unction, and while the priest was reciting the prayers before the preface in the Holy Sacrifice, on the morrow, the second Sunday in Lent, she breathed forth her pure soul."   Fosses long maintained its character as an Irish monastery, and was much resorted to by pilgrims from Erin.”

Which brings us back to that other saint whose feast is today.  The traditional meal in his honor is corned beef and cabbage, also known as New England Boiled Dinner, but since that creates the Battle of the Boyne in my midsection, I shall content myself with CHAMP:

Prepare and boil 6 – 8 potatoes.  Drain and mash them slightly.

Chop enough spring onions or scallions to equal 1 cup and cook them until soft in 2/3 cup of milk.

Melt 1 stick of butter, and keep warm. Add the onions to the potatoes, with salt and pepper to taste, and beat well, adding enough of the milk to make the dish creamy [since I always have very mealy potatoes, I use up all of the milk and sometimes more]

Pile the potatoes in individual bowls and make a well in the center of each serving to hold the melted butter.  It is eaten from the outside, with each spoonful dipped in the butter.

If that is too much straight butter and your own insides are liable to mount a protest, melt half of it in the warmed milk and mix it into the mashed potatoes… and use the remainder at your discretion.

And for the patron saint of cats and those owned by them: