St. Harvey

(Sixth Century)

Among the Bretons (those Celts who occupy Brittany in northwest France) the two most popular names for boys are Yves (after St. Yves, the brilliant 14th-century lawyer) and Hervaeus, Herve or Harvey (after a sixth-century Breton monk). Especially after St. Harvey’s relics were distributed throughout Brittany in 1002, this monk-saint became intensely popular. Indeed, up to 1610 when the local court ordered that all official oaths be taken on the bible only, the Bretons took solemn oaths on the relics of St. Herve. His feast was also for some time listed as one of the holydays of obligation in the Breton diocese of Leon.

Abbot Harvey is often mentioned in the tales and songs of Brittany. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to discern what is told of him as fact or folklore. The traditional legend of Herve is nevertheless charming enough to be related here.

Around the year 520, we are told, a Celtic bard (folk singer/historian) driven out of Britain by the Anglo-Saxon invaders, came to the court of Childebert I, the Frankish king of Paris. The bard’s name was Hyvarnion. Although Hyvarnion delighted the royal court with his songs, he was too earnest a man to desire to be a mere court musician. A couple of years later, therefore, he moved to Brittany to be in the company of his exiled fellow countrymen.

He married a girl named Rivanon, who bore him a son baptized Hervaeus. Unfortunately, the child was born functionally blind.

His father died soon after his birth. Rivanon raised her child until he was seven. Then she entrusted him to the care of Arthian, a holy man. Later Herve joined his uncle, a monk who had launched a little school in his monastery in Plouvien. Despite his poor sight, young Harvey was able to help the uncle with the children and the farm tasks of the monastery. Eventually he became a monk of the Plouvien community.

One day, we are told, while he was plowing in the fields, a wolf attacked the donkey that was drawing his plow. Guiharan, a small child who was assisting the monk, cried out in panic. But Harvey, already a devout young man, simply prayed for divine help. The response, says the legend, was miraculous. The wolf, repenting, shouldered the dead donkey’s harness and meekly pulled the plow himself until the task was finished!

Harvey’s mother had meanwhile been living far away in the depths of a forest, with only a niece to keep her company and do her service in her declining years. Learning of her grave illness, the future saint traveled back to see her. She gave him her last blessing, and he closed her eyes in death.

Not long after Herve returned to Plouvien, his uncle put him in charge of the little monastery. Three years later, he decided to move the whole establishment elsewhere. Accompanied by all his monks and students, he set out for western Brittany. At Leon, the bishop cordially greeted the travelers. He offered to ordain their superior a priest; but Herve, out of humility, would accept only the minor order of exorcist. Eventually his community reached the present Lanhouarneau. There he established a new monastery that was to become famous throughout Brittany.

Abbot Hervaeus spent the rest of his life at Lanhouarneau, although from time to time he was called forth to preach to the people of the area and to exercise his office of exorcist. It was in the latter capacities that he performed many of the miracles attributed to him. (Once, it is said, noisy frogs that interfered with his sermon stopped their croaking at his command.) The older he grew, the more revered he became for his holiness.

Fr. Harvey lived a long life. When he was breathing his last, says the legend, the monks at his bedside heard angel choirs singing him a song of welcome.

St. Hervaeus is identified in pictures and statues by a wolf, with or without his child-guide. Sometimes he is also shown as a preacher quieting frogs. The Bretons invoke his aid against diseases of the eye, and cite his wolf as a warning to disobedient children.

--Father Robert F. McNamara