St. Gobain and Company
(SS. Beatus, Cataldo, Donatus, Dympna, Fiacre, Fredegano, Fridian, Fridolin, Fursey, Gall, Gobain, Kilian, Rumold, Virgilius, Wendel)
The town of St. Gobain in northern France is noted for the mirrors it manufactures. It is not likely, however, that most of those who primp before a St. Gobain’s looking glass are aware who St. Gobain was. He was a seventh century Irish monk who brought the Gospel to the pagan Germans who had settled in northern Gaul, and who eventually martyred him at that spot.
Most nations have received the Gospel from preachers of other nationalities than their own. Among the “loving strangers” who served as missionaries in the pagan hinterlands of the European continent, the Irish monks were perhaps the most phenomenal.
The major Irish missionary, of course, was St. Columban of Donegal (521-597). He brought 63 other Irish missionary monks with him. But, in addition to Columban’s associates, there were perhaps 100 other Irish religious who swarmed over to continental Europe to broadcast the Good News.
Let’s mention a few names of special interest.
In addition to St. Gobain, two other Irishmen who worked in France deserve comment, St. Fursey and St. Fiacre.
St. Fursey, from Tuam, Ireland, first went to England, where he established a monastery. Driven out of England by King Penda of Mercia, he fled to France. There, with the help of King Clovis II, he started another great abbey at Lagny near Paris. As abbot, he won an esteem second only to that enjoyed by St. Columban. At one period he was administrator of the diocese of Paris. His shrine at Peronne in northern France was among the best-known in the country. It was highly honored with gifts by King St. Louis IX of France.
St. Fiacre’s name was perhaps even more popular. He had arrived in France around 626 AD, already a mature monk. Establishing a little hermitage for himself east of Paris, he planted a kitchen garden around it where he raised both vegetables and flowers. (Hence, he has become the patron saint of gardeners and florists.)
Because of his prayerfulness and his charities, he came to be venerated as one of the most powerful patrons of the kingdom of France. A Paris hotel near the Louvre bore his name in the Rue St. Fiacre. Because the horse-drawn buses of the 17th century parked here, people called the buses the “fiacres”.
The Irish missionaries to Belgium also became noted as “naturalized citizens”. St. Fredegano was chosen as patron saint of Dorne and is invoked against the plague. The beautiful cathedral of Mechelen, noted for its carillon, is named after Irishman St. Rumold. An Irish girl, St. Dympna, also came to Belgium, where she died a martyr at the hands of an Irish pursuer. She became the patron of epileptics and of the mentally disturbed. There is still an important mental hospital at Gheel, the site of her death.
St. Gall, a companion of St. Columban, is held in veneration in the city and canton of St. Gall, Switzerland. The town of St. Beatenburg is named after another Irish monk, St. Beatus.
A host of Irish missionaries worked in Germany and Austria. St. Kilian from County Cavan died for the faith at Wuerzburg. St. Fridolin evangelized the Rhine Valley. A monastic community grew up around the cell of St. Wendel or Wendelin in southwest Germany. Many Catholics from that district migrated to the U.S.A. - including the diocese of Rochester. Seventeen villages in this country are named after him. St. Virgilius died as bishop of Salzburg in Austria. The names of all three are popular given baptismal names.
Italy, too, has its “naturalized” Irish saints. St. Donatus or San Donato (Donagh) ruled 47 years as bishop of Fiesole near Florence. St. Fridian from Ulster founded a monastery at Lucca. Lucca’s cathedral, his shrine, is named after him, San Frediano. Also, one of the most popular Christian names in Italy is “Cataldo”. St. Cataldo was the bishop of Taranto on the “heel” of the Italian “boot”; but he was himself not an Italian but an Irishman - Cathal of Lismore in County Donegal.
These Irishmen certainly got around! More importantly, they traveled abroad precisely in order to share with other nations the treasure of their own profound faith.
-- Father Robert F McNamara