One needn’t be Catholic to appreciate the saints as holy personages in spirit tasked with helping us take care of the business of living.
On March 17, we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with everything from corned beef and cabbage to green beer and bad imitations of an Irish accent (usually post-beer). St. Patrick — although not Irish by birth — is a patron saint of Ireland. Patrick was born to Roman parents. Kidnapped at age 16 by Irish pirates, Patrick was sold into slavery to a Druid priest, and during his six years of captivity, Patrick converted to Christianity. A voice told him in a dream that escape was possible, which he did with the help of some sailors. A vision of pagan Irish children reaching out to him solidified his ultimate goal of bringing Christianity to Ireland.
After Patrick escaped, he studied for the priesthood, became a bishop, and went back to Ireland. There, he and other missionaries incorporated aspects of pagan rituals into church practices, and Patrick is often credited with introducing the Celtic cross, which combines pagan and Christian symbolism.
Although legend has it that St. Patrick chased all the snakes in Ireland into the sea when they attacked him during a 40-day fast, no evidence exists that snakes ever lived in Ireland!
For many, celebrating saints is less about a party and more about day-to-day life. According to Father Tom Smith, director of Holy Cross Retreat Center in Mesilla Park, saints “were not perfect people by any means, but had qualities we can aspire to.” He notes that some people see saints as a “comforting, prayerful presence — companions that encourage and lift them up at times they are disheartened. Others may see a saint as a model of something they respect, or someone who speaks to them as a guide.” They are not worshipped, but honored and venerated.
Several saints are particularly important to us in Southern New Mexico. The St. Albert the Great Newman Center at New Mexico State University is named for a man born to a wealthy German family in 1206. Albert was a great teacher and philosopher and is now the patron saint of scientists.
Father Tom also notes the importance of the fascinating St. Katherine Drexel, whose feast day is March 3. A patron saint of racial justice, she was born into one of the wealthiest families in America, and one that was both intensely religious and philanthropic. A trip to the West when Katherine was young exposed her to the poverty and forced relocation of Native Americans. This affected her greatly, and before and after entering religious life she devoted herself to serving Native Americans and former African American slaves in the South and West, including New Mexico and Arizona.
Dr. Elizabeth Zarur, emeritus professor at New Mexico State University, notes that St. Joseph, patron saint of the homeless and protector of families, is often called upon to intercede in the sale of houses. Planting a statue of St. Joseph upside down in the corner of the lot is a common practice to speed the process along. Elizabeth notes that until the Renaissance, the church was not sure how to visually represent St. Joseph because of his complicated relationship as the husband of the Virgin Mary but not the father of her son. St. Joseph’s feast day is March 19.
Elizabeth explains that people choose their patron saint(s) depending on what aspect of life they feel needs intercession, and she has seen home altars with as many as 15 saints represented. Altars are located in an important area of the home and beautifully decorated, sometimes with flowers, vases, prayer candles, and good linen.
Elizabeth’s special relationship is with St. Anthony because his feast day (the date of death and heavenly birth) is the date her mother passed away. St. Anthony is invoked for finding lost articles, finding a husband, and also as a protector of the poor, as he is often depicted holding baby Jesus. According to Elizabeth, if a woman feels St. Anthony is not helping her attract a husband, she may try to annoy him into action by turning his statue to face the wall, putting him in a drawer, taking the baby Jesus out of his arms, and, if all else fails, placing him in the freezer!
The blessing of the animals is popular in the Las Cruces community and elsewhere and takes place near the October 4 feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals and the environment. The son of a wealthy merchant, Francis believed that humans were no different from animals in that all are creations of God. It is said St. Francis could speak to animals, including fish, birds, and bees, and that he even brokered a deal between a hungry wolf and the townspeople it had been attacking.
Father Tom says his admiration for St. Francis was why he chose the Franciscan order. Part of Francis’s compassionate work included caring, serving, and living among lepers, who were outcasts. According to Father Tom, Francis had a “great sense of joy, and would laugh, sing, and dance,” and saw the earth and its creatures and people as great gifts, to be treated with kindness.
Elizabeth states that another important saint for our region is San Isidro, patron saint of farmers, fields, and water. Isidro was a day laborer for a wealthy landowner. Isidro was always late to work, spurring his coworkers to complain to the master. When the master and coworkers arrived back at the field, they found Isidro on his knees praying while an angel worked with an ox to till the land. When Isidro touched the ground, a spring bubbled up to quench the thirst of his master. Blessing of the fields occurs on San Isidro’s feast day, May 15, including a special event at the New Mexico Farm & Ranch Heritage Museum in Las Cruces.
Father Tom and Elizabeth agree that the most important saint in Southern New Mexico is the Blessed Virgin Mary, Our Lady of Guadalupe, especially for Hispanic and Indigenous Catholics throughout the Americas. It is believed that in December 1531, Mary appeared to Juan Diego, an Indigenous man who had converted to Catholicism. She spoke to Juan Diego not in Spanish, but in his own Aztec language, requesting a shrine be built to her for the protection of the people there in Mexico. Juan Diego ran to tell the bishop, but the bishop didn’t believe Juan Diego and requested a sign. Mary granted that request, sending Juan Diego back to the bishop with a tilma (cloak) full of roses and spring flowers, even though it was the middle of a cold and icy winter. When the flowers spilled from Juan Diego’s tilma, Our Lady’s image was left in the lining. Locally, the Tortugas Pueblo Our Lady of Guadalupe Fiesta occurs each December 10 – 12, including an early-morning candlelight pilgrimage to the top of Tortugas Mountain for Mass and confession.
Saints inspire, encourage, and provide emotional support for many. According to Father Tom, “St. Paul called us all to be saints, in a way, as a witness to God’s presence. That’s what I want to do. My goal is to help others feel God’s compassion, and, for me, saints are one way of doing that.”
Local 2021 celebrations — depending on COVID restrictions:
Blessing of the Fields, New Mexico Farm & Ranch Heritage Museum
Blessing of the Animals, Unitarian Universalist Church of Las Cruces
December 10 – 12
Our Lady of Guadalupe Fiesta, Tortugas Pueblo
‘Saint Joseph’ exhibit to open by appointment
The New Mexico State University Art Museum’s spring 2021 exhibit, “Saint Joseph & The Laborers,” will open by appointment beginning Saturday, Feb. 20, through Nov. 6, 2021. This exhibition was created through donations from various retablo collectors, including retablo expert Gloria Fraser Giffords. The exhibit delves into the role of the laborer through the lens of Mexican retablo imagery.
“Saint Joseph & The Laborers” will be on display in the newly created Margie and Bobby Rankin Retablo Gallery. It is curated by Courtney Uldrich, 2021 MA candidate, as part of the course ART 597.
In this exhibition, the University Art Museum will also display for the first time a Mexican statue, or bulto, as well as other retablo paintings from the recent donation to the UAM Permanent Art Collection by Giffords. Click here for more information, or contact Marisa Sage at 575-646-2545 or [email protected].
Written by Elaine Stachera Simon | Photography by Olivia Belcher
Originally published on Neighbors magazine | 2021
Posted by LasCruces.com