Patron Saint of Cats
Ah, the 17th of March. A day when most of the citizens of the good old US of A discover they’re Irish. Not a terrible thing. Not at all. But there’s an under appreciated saint due to having to share the date with super saint, Patrick. Someone to know.
I first became aware of her because of, well, cats.
And so, if you’re not familiar with her, and care for cats, I commend to your consideration and maybe devotion, St Gertrude of Nivelles, whose feast is also today, the 17th of March.
Gertrude was born into nobility in the kingdom of Austrasia, in what is today Belgium, somewhere around 628. Her father was Pepin of Landen, Mayor of the Merovingian Royal Palace.
After his death Gertrude’s mother Itta founded the Abbey of Nivelles. Gertrude had refused to marry despite her father’s insistence. She was intent on the monastic life. When her father died, the exact date is not known, she followed her mother in taking the veil.
It was an interesting time for religion. Christianity was in control, but it was mostly an urban thing, the countryside remained largely pagan. But there was an enthusiasm at the time which led to some of the great monastic foundations. And Gertrude and her mother Itta’s work were part of that flowering. The abbey was at first a convent of nuns, but with the arrival of a band of Irish monks became a double monastery.
Gertrude was named the founding abbess of the monastery. Under her leadership the abbey was renowned for learning and charity. She had a particular fondness for Irish monastics, and in addition to the monks who had joined, her abbey became a resting place for Irish pilgrims.
In addition to scholarship and generosity of heart, Gertrude began to be known as a visionary. She had a widely reported vision of the “True Light,” At the altar “She saw descending above her a flaming pellucid sphere such that the whole basilica was illuminated by its brightness.” After her death appeals to her intervention were credited with a number of miracles.
She died on the 17th of March in 659. She’d been ill for a time, generally believed to be due to her ascetic practices. Shortly before her death she named a successor as abbess. She was approximately thirty-three years old at her death. And soon after dying, the miracles began.
She was particularly appealed to by travelers, gardeners, for those suffering from mental illnesses.
Why her association with cats is a bit of a mystery. There is that protection against rats which goes way back. When the black death came in the early 15th century, some suggest her power against rats and cats and rats, led to the association. I personally am not sure people knew of the association between rats and the plague at the time, so I’m not sure about that.
It would appear that by the twentieth century some associated Gertrude with the goddess Frigg. And that may have greater antiquity, goddesses and great abbesses often find their attributes intertwined. However it is only in modernity, by the 1980s we find Gertrude is completely associated with cats.
A good thing. Late, but as they say, better late than never.
And with that, puts Gertrude of Nivelles high on my personal list of saints.
Icon of Gertrude found at CatGenie