6 April 2017

Saint Gerard Majella

Patron saint of expectant mothers

St Gerard Majella
Gerardo Maiella, a poor tailor from what is now Basilicata who became the Catholic Church’s patron saint of expectant mothers, was born on this day in 1726.

Maiella, from the hillside town of Muro Lucano near Potenza, then part of the Kingdom of Naples, was credited with a number of miracles. The one that led him to be associated with childbirth relates to a handkerchief he dropped when visiting a family as a lay brother of the Congregation of the Redeemer, having become famous locally on account of his supposedly mystical powers.

According to the story, one of the daughters of the family picked up the handkerchief and ran out of the house to return it to him, at which he told her to keep it, suggesting  she ‘might need it some day’.  Years later, as a pregnant young woman fearing for her life in a painfully difficult labour, she remembered his words and asked for the handkerchief to be placed on her. Immediately, the pain ceased and she gave birth to a healthy child.

At the time, only about one in three pregnancies ended in a live birth and Maiella was hailed for his miraculous intervention. Word spread of the story and Italian mothers adopted him as their patron.

He was beatified in January 1893 by Pope Leo XIII and canonised as Saint Gerard Majella in December 1904 by Pope Pius X.

A statue of the Saint in Wittem, in the Netherlands
A statue of the Saint in Wittem, in the Netherlands
The youngest of five children, Gerardo was the son of a tailor who died when he was 12, leaving the family in poverty.

His mother sent him to her brother’s workshop so that he could learn his father’s trade. Despite being bullied by the foreman of the workshop, Gerardo saw out his four-year apprenticeship and after a period working as a servant to the Bishop of Lacedonia he set about making a living from his new skills, first as an employee of other tailors, then in his own shop. He reputedly gave his mother a third of what he earned to keep him and his three surviving sisters, distributing the rest among the poor people of his town and making offerings for the souls in purgatory.

Rejected twice by the Capuchin Order on the grounds of his frail appearance and supposedly poor health, in 1749 he joined the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer - also known as Redemptorists – an order founded in 1732 by St Alphonsus Liguori at Scala, near Naples, with a mission to preach the word of God to the poor.

St Gerard's Church at Lostock Hall, near Preston in Lancashire
St Gerard's Church at Lostock Hall,
near Preston in Lancashire
Maiella took the vows of Poverty, Chastity and Obedience. He remained the friend of the poor and worked on behalf of the order in many different jobs. He was said to have the gift of reading consciences and was permitted to counsel communities of religious women.

His intercession is now sought not only for expectant mothers but unborn children, women in childbirth, mothers generally, good confessions and, somewhat incongruously, falsely accused people.

This stemmed from an incident when Maiella was accused maliciously of breaking his vows by having a relationship with a young woman. When confronted by Alphonsus Liguori about the accusation, Gerardo remained silent. The girl later admitted the accusation was a lie and cleared his name.

Among other miracles credited to him were restoring life to a boy who had seemingly fallen to his death from a cliff, blessing the small amount of wheat possessed by an impoverished family so that it lasted for a year, multiplying the loaves of bread he was distributing to the poor and even walking across the surface of a stormy sea to rescue a stricken fishing boat.

Suffering from tuberculosis, Gerardo died in the chapel of Santa Maria Materdomini in Caposele, some 35km (22 miles) from Muro Lucano, where he was serving the Redemptorist order as clerk of works for a building project, on October 16, 1755, the date which is commemorated each year as St Gerard’s feast day.

The Basilica di San Gerardo developed from the chapel in Materdomini where Maiella died
The Basilica di San Gerardo developed from the chapel
in Materdomini where Maiella died 
There are churches in many parts of the world dedicated to St Gerard, the first of which was built in 1908 in Wellington, New Zealand.

In England, the town of Preston and the city of Bristol have churches named in his honour, as does Bellshill in the Scottish county of Lanarkshire.

There are Catholic parishes dedicated to St Gerard Majella in the Borough of Queens in New York and in the Del Rey section of Los Angeles, while St Gerard's Chapel in St Lucy's Church in Newark, New Jersey has since 1977 been a national shrine.

Muro Lucano perches on a hillside near Potenza
Muro Lucano perches on a hillside near Potenza
Travel tip:

Muro Lucano is situated about 50km (31 miles) north-west of Potenza.  With a population of around 5,500 it is built on a slope overlooking the Muro ravine, its houses built on a series of terraces. The area has significance in history as the site of a battle between Hannibal and Marcellus in the second Punic War, while its castle is said to have witnessed the murder of Queen Joan of Naples on the orders of her adopted son, Charles III of Naples.

Travel tip:

The village of Materdomini, a frazione of Caposele, grew from a hamlet after the chapel of Santa Maria Materdomini was developed into the Basilica of Santa Gerardo Maiella and became a centre for pilgrimage dedicated to the worship of St Gerard.

More reading:

How the festival of San Gennaro is celebrated across the world

The missionary saint from Limone sul Garda

Why St Thomas Aquinas is so important among saints

Also on this day:

(Picture credits: Saint Gerard by Nashastudiya; Wittem statue by Kris Roderburg; Mura Lucano by Pitichinaccio; San Gerardo Basilica by Gerrusson; all via Wikimedia Commons)


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