Patron Saints and Patron-Saint Feasts

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Patron Saints and Patron-Saint Feasts

The invocation of patron saints is based on the concept that deceased Christians who were notable during their lives for virtue can aid living persons today by interceding with God for special graces and material favors. Jesus Christ and the apostolic church imitated the Jewish practice of citing the patriarchs as exemplars of particular virtues; Solomon for his wisdom (Matthew 6:29; Luke 12:27) and Abraham for his faith (Hebrews 11:57 ff). While invocation of Jesus as protector remains primary in Christianity, in the deaths of the deacon Stephen (Acts 7:55–56) and early martyrs such as Ignatius of Antioch (d. 107), the Roman persecutions multiplied the number of exemplars of Christian virtues. Because many of these martyrs were identified with the power of faith in a particular city or region, their bodily remains were buried in places of honor when the persecutions ended. Moralistic accounts of the virtues of the deceased saint were recorded, and on the anniversary of his or her death, rituals were celebrated reminding the public of the saint's virtue. Devotion to the virgin martyr Lucy (d. 304) in the Sicilian city of Syracuse follows this model.

Martyrs are "witnesses" (this is the meaning of the Greek word), and the testimony of their virtuous lives and holy deaths was considered to strengthen Christian practice. The hagiographies frequently present the martyrs as able to face death in a saintly manner because they led pious lives. The conclusion was that other Christians should do the same. By the end of the fourth century, not only martyrs, but also church leaders and persons of piety were afforded the status of saints. For instance, Martin (316–397), a former Roman soldier and bishop of Tours, was acclaimed as a saint even though he did not die as a martyr. Gradually, most Christian cities claimed some saintly person from within their population to have been a saint in life and to have become a protector after death.

The expansion of Christianity in Europe to include peoples who had never been under Roman rule allowed for each of these new nationalities to celebrate their own saints. Often the acceptance of Christ did not completely displace practices related to animistic religions, so that some saints appeared to appropriate powers of fertility or healing that were virtually identical with beliefs of the original religion. Christianity instituted practices meant to make the separation from the previous religion more definitive, such as requiring the adoption of the name of a Christian saint at baptism. Despite continual efforts from the church institution to control the proliferation of such cults, however, Christianity maintained many devotions to patron saints that mixed in elements of magic and belief in spells that were not consonant with the Gospel. Typical of popular excesses were the collection of relics—fragments of bone or pieces of cloth touched by the saint—to which were attributed miraculous healing or protection from evil. With the emergence of large medieval cities after the eleventh century, specific groups within a larger locality would choose a saint as exemplar of their collective effort at the Christian life. Thus, for instance, the Roman martyr Cecilia, who was believed to have been a musician, became the patron saint of musicians, while Joseph, foster father of Jesus, was patron saint of carpenters.

The Christian churches created by the Reformation tended to reject as saints all but persons described as holy in the Bible. Catholicism after the Council of Trent began a process of repressing suspect practices associated with patron saints without rejecting the concept itself. By emphasizing historical authenticity, the Bollandists created a new style of hagiography that relied more on documentation and legal testimony rather than legend or miracle. Simultaneously, a rigorous scrutiny was established by the Vatican for the canonization of saints. The Catholic Church and the Episcopal Church in the United States continue the practice of invoking patron saints. While the proclamation of sainthood is reserved to their hierarchy, popular religiosity continues to play a major role in fashioning devotions. Thus, for instance, the devotion to one of the apostles, St. Jude, as a patron of hopeless causes, is a twentieth-century development from a shrine in Chicago. The patron saints of particular countries, such as St. Patrick and St. Bridget for the Irish, St. Casimir for Poles, and St. John the Baptist for Puerto Ricans and French Canadians, are invoked in the United States by groups of those ethnicities. Some saints are patrons today because their names are frequently chosen for Christian children, as, for instance, Michael, Christopher, Matthew, Mark, John, and James for boys and forms of Mary and Ann, Barbara, Margaret, and Elizabeth for girls. Choice of such a name does not always imply devotion to the saint. Other patron saints are familiar because they are associated with a religious order that will name institutions after them; St. Ignatius of Loyola, for instance, is often declared as patron of Jesuit universities.

The most popular patron saints in the United States today include the following, with brief descriptions of their lives, some reasons for their popularity, and their feast day:

  • Ann, Mother of Mary: Described in an early noncanonical text as wife of Joaquim and mother of Mary, she has always been considered a Christian saint. Her name is a variant of the Hebrew "Hannah" attributed to other pious women (I Samuel 1:1–2; Tobit 1:9; Luke 2:36–38). In the nineteenth century, St. Ann was often cited as an exemplar of feminine domesticity. Popular shrines to her are found in Québec, Canada, and Scranton, Pennsylvania. ( July 26)
  • Anthony of Padua (1125 –1231): One of the early followers of the Franciscan Order, he was a university theologian at Bologna in Italy and died in Padua. He is often pictured holding a book on which the child Jesus is seated, based on an account of a miracle during his life. Proclaimed a doctor of the church on account of his preaching, he is often invoked as a finder of lost things and as a supplier of bread to the poor. ( June 13)
  • Bernadette Soubirous (1844 –1879): A French peasant girl who reported visions of Mary at Lourdes, which has become one of the most important shrines in Catholicism. She joined the convent of the Sisters of Notre Dame at Nevers. She was canonized in 1933. The 1940s motion picture of her life helped popularize devotion to her and the naming of Catholic girls born at that time. (April 16)
  • Bridget (ca. 450 –525): She was the founder of the first convent on Irish soil, at Kildare. A collection of apocalyptic prophesies is attributed to her, many of which suggest a special love for Ireland by God. (February 1)
  • Charles Lwanga (d. ca. 1885 –1887): He was leader of twenty-two martyrs, many of them pages in the court of the Ugandan ruler King Mwanga. They were sentenced to death for denouncing the corruption at court. He is popular among African Americans. ( June 3)
  • Christopher (third century): This is a name found among martyrs of the period, but possibly used only as a label for an anonymous Christian, much as one might label a "John Doe." Legends played on the meaning of the name, "bearer of Christ," and made Christopher into a ferryman who miraculously encountered Christ as a child. St. Christopher medals have been considered to offer protection for those taking a journey. ( July 25)
  • Frances Xavier (Mother) Cabrini (1850 –1917): An Italian nun and founder in 1877 of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart, she became an American citizen at Seattle in 1909 while working for the welfare of immigrants. She was the first American citizen canonized, in 1946. (November 13)
  • Francis of Assisi (1181/82 –1226): Born into a merchant Italian family as Giovanni di Bernardone, during his youth the pursued frivolity and stylish French clothing (hence his nickname as "Francesco"). He founded the Order of Friars Minor (Franciscans) (1209) after his dramatic conversion to a life of poverty in service of the poor. He received the wounds of Christ, the stigmata, in 1224 and was acclaimed as a saint throughout Christianity even before his death. Accounts of his simplicity and acceptance of unspoiled nature made him a patron of ecologists and animal pets. (October 4)
  • John Vianney (the Curé of Ars) (1746 –1859): A parish priest in a small French village, he was noted for his austere and dedicated life. He is considered the patron of parish priests who do not belong to a religious order. (August 4)
  • Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha (Lily of the Mohawks) (1656 –1680): Born among the Mohawks of New York State, she was baptized by Jesuit missionaries. She spent many years aiding the needy in Montréal, Canada. She is considered a patron of Native American Catholics. ( July 14)
  • Maria Goretti (1890 –1902): An Italian peasant girl, she was slain at age twelve while resisting rape. She was canonized in 1950 and proclaimed as a model for Catholic purity. ( July 6)
  • Martin de Porres (1579 –1639): A Dominican lay brother of mixed African and Spanish parentage, he was born in Lima, Peru. Cited for many miracles during his life, he is considered a patron of African-American Catholics. (November 3)
  • Thérèse of Liseaux (The Little Flower) (1873 –1897): A cloistered Carmelite nun in France, she died young, of tuberculosis. Her diary (Autobiography of a Soul) was celebrated as an example of how sanctity could be attained without miracles during one's lifetime. The diary re-created in deft psychological detail how ordinary events could provide occasions for the practice of virtue. Her constant prayers for foreign missionaries made her their patron. She was proclaimed a doctor of the church in 1999. (October 1)
  • Thomas Aquinas (1226 –1274): A Dominican friar and professor at the University of Paris, he is considered the greatest exponent of the systematic explanations of Christianity, the Summa Theologica. Declared an angelic doctor, he is frequently invoked as patron of Catholic scholars. ( January 28)
  • Thomas More (1478 –1535): An English writer and lawyer who became chancellor of England under Henry VIII, he was beheaded for refusing to recant the Catholic faith. Patron of Catholic lawyers. ( June 22)
  • Vincent de Paul (1581? –1660): He was a French peasant who, after his escape as a galley slave under the Turks, became a priest and founder of the Vincentians/Lazarists for men and the Daughters of Charity for women. He was notable for his service to the urban poor and is considered the patron saint of charitable works. (September 27)

See alsoLived Religion; Ritual; Roman Catholicism; Sainthood; Shrine.


Orsi, Robert. Thank You, St. Jude: Women's Devotion tothe Patron Saint of Hopeless Causes. 1996.

For Catholic saints visit: and related sites.

For the Bollandist collection visit:

Anthony M. Stevens-Arroyo