We have all heard of Patrick, a fifth-century missionary and patron saint of Ireland, who is credited with being the cause of the lack of snakes on the island of Ireland. Legend has it that the snakes that were on the island were all banished by Patrick, chasing them into the sea after they attacked him during a 40-day fast he was undertaking on a hilltop. Shadows of Jesus, the demonic Gerasene, and the poor swine, who led the legion of demons into the sea (Mark 5).
But what about Gertrude? She shares the same day, March 17, with Patrick; it is the feast day for both of them in the calendar of the Roman Catholic Church, as March 17 was the day that Gertrude, as well as Patrick, would have died.
So as all of Ireland and the entire Irish Diaspora today celebrate Patrick with vigor (wearing green clothes, drinking lots of Guinness, dyed green hair, marching in street parades and telling predictable jokes with incomprehensible accents), have a thought for Gertrude of Nivelleswho shares his patronal feast with Patrick the Confessor.
Gertrude lived in the 7th century in the nation we now call Belgium. His father was a powerful Frankish noble from the court of the king, Dagobert I. It is said that at the age of ten, Gertrude refused a marriage proposal from the son of a duke, “claiming that she would have neither him nor any earthly wife, but Christ the Lord.
When her father died a few years later, her mother Itta shaved her head into a monk’s tonsure to deter potential suitors from forcibly marrying her wealthy family. Itta and Gertrude established a monastery in Nivelles and retired to a religious life. Here, then, is the first reason to admire Gertrude (and her other Itta): a monastery for women was one of the few options for women in antiquity to preserve their intellectual, economic and sexual autonomy.
It is said that Gertrude kept cats in the monastery to keep the rats and mice under control – a wise and sensible decision, thus a second reason to love Gertrude.
There are illuminated manuscripts, church frescoes and stained glass which depict Gertrude in a garden, surrounded by cats, rats and mice (often with a mouse running on her staff). However, there are no ancient written claims that are explicit about Gertrude and the cats; it seems that this connection is an invention of the end of the 20th century! Nevertheless, we can follow the new evolution of tradition and honor Gertrude for her care of the cats, right?
Gertrude and her feline friends are important in my household. We have three cats, all ragdolls, all very beautiful, ages 14, 11 and 8; they are all well fed and cared for, able to move around in any room of the house (but not outside except in the special enclosure). They live the good life every day with their two full-time servants; and once in a while they go on holiday to Curtin Cat Care to be spoiled.
Gertrude’s mother, Itta, died in 650. Gertrude, aged 24, therefore took sole charge of the monastery and was known for her hospitality to pilgrims. She died in 659 – exhausted in her early thirties, the Cambridge Medieval History says, “from too much abstinence and vigils”.
Mel Campbell reports that the story is told, that a visiting Irish monk, whose brother Gertrude had sheltered, predicted that she would die on St. Patrick’s Day, and that “the bishop blessed Patrick with the angels chosen of God… are ready to receive it”. Begorrah, that was it!
Mel Campbell also writes, “On a day sadly associated with public displays of crude masculinity, wouldn’t it be nice to honor a saint whose areas of patronage have traditionally been belittled as feminized and domestic?” Gertrude was an independent woman who refused to be treated like chattel.
And THAT, above all (and even above our feline friends!) is cause to remember and honor Gertrude de Nivelles.
I took much of the information about Gertrude from here.
There is a page honoring her as a saint at Catholic Saints.info.
The Reverend Dr John Squires is Minister of Rectory (Welfare) of Canberra Area Rectory and Editor of With love for the world. This reflection originally appeared on his blog, Informed Faith.