Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A Saint in the Terre Cabade

Folk Saints, also known as "popular saints", are saints which though immensely popular and venerated for their miraculous powers, are not officially recognized as such by the Catholic church.

Laws of Silence has already discussed two such Latin American saints. The first, Jesus Malverde, has become so popular among drug traffickers and hitmen that the Mexican government has taken to bulldozing shrines erected in his honor. A second, Gauchito Gil, is another Robin Hood-like character sharing many Malverdian attributes. His shrine attracts thousands of pilgrims annually.

Cut over to Toulouse, France. Hélène Soutade (d. August 11, 1885, 48 or 50 years old) a teacher about whom little is known, has become one of these folk saints: Santa Héléna. Her tomb in the Terre Cabade cemetery is covered with flowers and ex-votos. There is also a photo of her corpse and a small relic--a framed fragment of clothing. It is by far the most colorful place in an already remarkable Necropolis.

Known for being a tender and kind teacher, she is said to have become part of a religious community late in life. Her sanctity comes from two miracles: the first is that two white doves (some sources say 4) followed her funeral procession all the way to the cemetery after her funeral. The second is that after a votive candle set her then-wooden tomb on fire, her casket had to be reinterred. At this occasion, after a pickaxe blow gone awry, it was discovered that her body had not decomposed, years after her death. In fact, curators of the cemetery say no such reinterrment took place and that there may be some confusion with the saint's father, whose body was transferred here after her death. True or not, the legend stuck.

As a teacher, she has become a patron of children. Parents with sick kids pray to her. Students pray to her for help in their studies. Children are her specialty, but people pray for everything else too: love, money, health, etc.

We propose that this may be a reflection of Toulouse's other most popular pilgrimage site:
Our Lady of the Daurade. Located in the Daurade Basilica across town, this Virgin is especially noted for her intercession on behalf of sick children and for women in labor. At one time, the Virgin's belt could be "rented" so that it could be laid across a woman's belly as she gave birth, ensuring a smooth delivery, so to speak.

In Santa Héléna one can see echoes of the pre-Christian past. Everyone knows the major gods--Jupiter, Apollo, Aphrodite--the heavy hitters--but there were literally thousands of local tutelary deities--every city and town had its protectors, trades had their patron. The Romans even had household gods. This plethora of spiritual intercessors finds expression today in the saints. In some cases, such as that of San Gennaro, it’s not even certain they existed as historical personages. In an example of a highly local saint (also perhaps only a legend), consider the case of St. Fris, practically unknown outside of Bassoues, a small town of a few hundred souls set deep within the Gers.

The reason for the popularity of these local “folk saints” is not so difficult to understand. It’s clear that with one god and so many believers, it’s hard to catch his ear; it helps to have someone on the inside. If this is someone from your town, part of the family so to speak, this might be a little more helpful than asking for the assistance of a total stranger. The church may be leery of these popular saints, but the canonization of new saints has not stopped and it stands to reason that more and more of these saints will be recent, historical figures. Not being lost in the mists of time, they have to be especially careful of who is recognized and who is not. A legend is easier to manipulate than a life with more concrete, verifiable traces. One can also discern a clear political component to the process, as with the canonization of Pope John Paul II. Perhaps the politics in the case of Santa Héléna simply boil down to a case of control, authority and religious obedience to the established process of canonization.

In any case, it’s safe to say that for the faithful, the revelation is ongoing and saintliness is not contingent upon antiquity; the faith is a living, evolving thing....

Note: For those who read French, I recommend the following article: Héléna, la sainte du cimitère
(Elisabeth Blanc) from the ethnological journal terrain. Normally I'd summarize the artice but I've contacted the editor about posting a translation of it in its entirety, with a favorable response. If all goes well and my formal request is approved, I can post a full translation of the article on LoS within a few weeks.
Update: March 1. My request has been approved. This may take some time but I'll post it when ready and reviewed.

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