Everyone knows that March 17 is St Patrick’s Day, when we are all supposed to be wearing green, eating raw potatoes with the skin on, drinking Guinness beer, making stereotypical and demeaning assumptions about an entire nation, and harassing women by asking if they have any Irish in them.
But March 17 is also the celebration of St Gertrude of Nivelles, the patron saint of cats. She’s also just so happens to be the patron of travelers and gardeners, and protects against rats and mental illness. Basically, she’s a saint that Simpsons character Eleanor Abernathy, MD JD might really get behind.
Just who Was St Gertrude?
Most of what’s known about Gertrude comes from her Vita Sanctae, the official Catholic biography which was produced to justify her worship. She was born around 626 in what’s now known as Belgium. Her dad was Pippin of Landen. He was a powerful Frankish nobleman and political operator at the court of King Dagobert I. Aged ten, Gertrude furtively refused a marriage proposal from the son of a duke, “saying that she would have neither him nor any earthly spouse but Christ the Lord.”
When her father died – although sources disagree, Gertrude was probably about 14 years of age – her mother Itta shaved her head into a monkish tonsure to deter would-be suitors from wanting to marry into her wealthy family by force. Itta and Gertrude established the monastery of Nivelles and retired to a life of religion – historically, this has been one of women’s few options to preserve their intellectual, economic and sexual autonomy. When her mother died back in 650, the now 24-year-old Gertrude took on sole governance of the monastery, and was well known for her hospitality to pilgrims.
She died in 659 – worn out by the time she was in her early thirties, says the Cambridge Medieval History, “because of too much abstinence and keeping of vigils”. A visiting Irish monk, whose brother Gertrude had sheltered, predicted that she would die on St Patrick’s Day, and that “blessed Bishop Patrick with the chosen angels of God… are prepared to receive her”. Begorrah. And so it was.
Several other saints may also be considered in charge of cats. St Francis of Assisi is the patron saint of all animals which include cats; while cats loved St Mary Bartholomew Bagnesi, a 16th century Dominican nun from Florence. “At least once when the cats knew Maria was hungry and hadn’t been looked after they went and fetched cheese for her,” says Catholic Daily.
And while cats are now today’s internet’s spirit animal, Gertrude has no power online. That would be the domain of St Isidore of Seville, whom Pope John Paul II deputized in 1997 as the patron saint of internet users. Isidore was a real ideas kind of guy who wrote 20 books and invented the word ‘etymology’.
But Gertrude’s patronage of travelers relates not only to her kind treatment of pilgrims back then, but also to her second attributed miracle, in which an Irish monk beset by a great storm at sea – including a sea monster! – prayed to her and the storm instantly subsided. Her hospitable treatment of Irish pilgrims was very important to a Church that wished to establish its cosmopolitan reach, which is why she shares her death date with St Patrick.
On a day that has become unfortunately associated with public displays of boorish masculinity, wouldn’t it be great to honor a saint whose domains of patronage have traditionally been belittled as feminized and domestic? Gertrude was an independent woman who refused to be thought of and treated as a chattel. Now she watches over nature, and calms stormy seas and minds, that is of course, if you have faith in her.