St. Ivo of Kermartin


St. Ivo Helory (in French, Yves), was born at the manor of Kermartin, near Treguier, Brittany, northwest France. His father, who was lord of the manor, sent this brilliant lad to Paris when 14 to begin his higher education. In the ten years that followed, Ivo won scholastic honors in philosophy, theology and canon law. Finding law his most attractive subject, he went on to Orleans where he studied civil law with a noted Orleanais attorney.

In the medieval universities there were a good many students who adopted the bohemian life. Not Yves. From his student days on, he battled temptations by wearing a hairshirt, eating no meat, drinking no wine, fasting often on bread and water, and curtailing his sleep. (We are not called upon to imitate all the forms of mortification that the saints adopt, some of them pretty harsh; but the principle still stands for all of us. We cannot maintain mastery over ourselves without constant self-denial of some sort.)

When he returned home after finishing his law education, Ivo was named judge in the church court of the diocese of Rennes. In those days church law covered many fields that are now under civil law, such as the probation of wills. As “officialis” the new judge paid special attention to the protection of orphans and the defense of the poor. His administration was so even-handed that even those who lost their cases continued to respect him.

Before long, however, the bishop of Treguier called him back to his home diocese to assume the same position. At Treguier, too, Ivo became known as “the poor man’s advocate.” Not content with defending the poor in the church court, he also served as their attorney in civil-court trials. If they couldn’t afford court expenses, he would pay them out of his own pocket. If they lost and were jailed, he visited them in prison. In a day in which it was commonplace to bribe judges, he absolutely refused any such offers. Bringing certain cases to trial might have meant profit to himself; but he preferred, if possible, to settle them out of court.

All this time, Yves was a cleric in minor church orders, but not a priest. When finally ordained to the priesthood in 1284, he was appointed pastor of a parish. For three years he continued to occupy both posts. Then he gave up his judicial office in order to devote full time to pastoral work.

We may easily imagine what kind of pastor this conscientious man turned out to be. The poor continued to be the object of his particular care. He founded a hospital in which he himself helped nurse the patients. If need be, he would give his own clothes to clothe the naked. One morning he found at his doorway a pauper who had slept there overnight. He brought him in, gave him his own bed, and spent the next night sleeping on the doorstep himself!

Meanwhile he was a popular teacher and preacher, well aware that “instructing the ignorant” and “counseling the doubtful” were also spiritual works of mercy.

He was often invited to serve as arbitrator between contestants. He also established legal-aid confraternities to assist the poor. These fraternities eventually spread throughout France and Belgium, reached Rome, and even far-away Brazil. It seems that some of them still continue in operation today.

St. Yves’ health began to decline in Lent 1303, but he refused to use illness as an excuse from Lenten acts of self-denial. He died that May, and was canonized a saint in 1347. Ever since his death, members of the legal profession have acknowledged him as their model. Even today, lawyers flock to his shrine in Treguier on his feast, May 19.

There is a famous satiric Latin verse, dating from the Middle Ages, that contrasts the saintly Ivo with less honest attorneys. (Mrs. Thatcher, as Britain’s prime minister, once quoted it.) “Sanctus Ivo erat Brito,/Advocatus et non ladro,/Res miranda populo.” (St. Yves was a Breton,/A lawyer but not a robber,/To everybody’s amazement.) As this cynical joke reminds us, attorneys are often tempted to twist legal procedures to their own benefit. That is why lawyers should always keep their eyes on St. Ivo, the lawyer-saint.

But Yves can also serve as a model for all of us; is there any human profession that does not have its occupational temptations?

--Father Robert F. McNamara