Move over Saint Patrick! Saint Gertrude of Nivelles, the patron saint of gardeners and travelers, is also celebrated on March 17th. Is she also the patron saint of cats? A quick Google search would lead you to believe so, but it is not necessarily a historical fact. Let’s look at her life and work to see how she may have become the patron saint of cats.
A Young Noble Woman
Born in 62 A.D., Saint Gertrude was the younger daughter of Pepin of Landen (Pippin the Edler) and Itta of Metz (source). Politics and royalty ran in her blood. Her father had played a large part in Dagobert I being crowned king of Austrasia, a territory that covers parts of modern-day France, Belgium, and Germany.
At the tender age of 10 years old, Pippin hosted a banquet to which King Dagobert I attended. The king asked Gertrude if she would marry the son of a duke of the Austrasians. She became angry and told him that she would not marry the duke nor any other man – she would have no earthly spouse but Christ the Lord. Her father could have forced her to marry the duke and might have done so if he had lived longer, but he did not force her to marry. While there is some debate, it is believed that Pippin died in 650 A.D.
Despite modern stereotypes, remaining unmarried had nothing to do with the labeling of Saint Gertrude as the patron saint of cats.
From Royalty to the Monastery
After her father’s death, Gertrude’s mother had to make some decisive moves to keep her daughter and herself out of harm’s way. It was not uncommon in those times for men to kidnap women and force them to marry for the sake of monetary and political gain. She chose to create a double monastery, one for men and one for women, in the city of Nivelles, in modern-day Belgium.
In 652 A.D., Gertrude’s mother passed away leaving Gertrude to run the monastery by herself. Gertrude was known to be an intelligent, scholarly woman, who devoted herself to the sick, elderly, and poor. She was very welcoming to foreigners whether they were secular or religious. Famously, she and her mother helped two Irish monks, Foillan and Ultan, to build a monastery known as Fosses. Her devotion to the Lord was evident for the rest of her life.
Only the Good Die Young
Gertrude became very frail from all her work and fasting. It is said that she prayed intensely and even wore a shirt made of hair. When she knew she was not long for the world, and she appointed her niece, Wulfetrud, to be abbess of her monastery.
Gertrude went to the Fosses monastery and asked a pilgrim there (believed to have been Ultan) when she would die. He told her that she would die on March 17th, the very next day but she could pass with joy because Saint Patrick and God’s angels would be there to receive her. She died at the age of 33 on March 17, 659.
Saint Gertrude of Nivelle’s Miracles
As with any saint, Saint Gertrude was known for the miracles of which she was a part. There are two miracles associated with her:
- A Vision of Fire
Saint Gertrude visited the altar of Pope Sixtus II, the martyr. While in prayer at the altar, she saw a vision of a very bright descending sphere of fire. The vision persisted for half an hour.
- Saving the Sailors
Some sailors were sailing through the sea when a storm suddenly hit and a sea monster appeared. The Christian sailors aboard the ship called out to Saint Gertrude for help. After they cried out, the storm was calmed, and the sea monster returned to the depths of the sea. In memory of this, medieval sailors setting out to sea would drink “Sinte Geerts Minne” or “Gertrudeminte” before going on their journey.
It is also worth noting that Saint Gertrude’s attention to gardening led to gardeners calling on her for help.
Becoming the Patron Saint of Cats
When does Saint Gertrude of Nivelles become the patron saint of cats? The first mention of this comes in a publication for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1981.That doesn’t mean that there is no historical reason for the belief that she is the patron saint of cats. In the 15th century, when the Black Plague came to northern Europe, people called upon Saint Gertrude as protector against mice and rats. This attribution may have led to her connection with cats.
Some confusion between Saint Gertrude and the goddess Freya may have also led to Saint Gertrude being labeled the patron saint of cats. Freya, the goddess of cats, love, and fertility, was a common figure in pagan worship in northern Europe.
Is Saint Gertrude of Nivelles the patron saint of cats? That is up to modern Catholics to decide.