5 Saints on the Shelf

Get better acquainted with Sts. Raymond Nonnatus, William of York, Richard, Kevin and Rocco.

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By now we all are familiar with the new Advent/Christmas tradition, “Elf On The Shelf” — a book in a box that comes with a six-inch felt-and-plastic elf whom a family names and, for lack of a better term, adopts.

The parents then move the elf around each night during Advent so that their children wake up the next morning wondering where in the house the Elf has gotten to. And then, on Christmas, the Elf — who has acted a bit like Santa’s spy, to see who has been naughty and nice — “disappears” (presumably to the North Pole) until next Advent.

Whoever came up with this concept is indeed a marketing genius who deserves every single cent he’s earned from the sales of “Elf On The Shelf.”

In my home office I do not have an Elf on my shelf: rather, our Elf, whom my twins strangely named “Biff Gaspar Johnson” several years ago, roams around the rest of our home, but does not frequent my office—mainly because it is usually such a mess.

However, in this same office I do have plenty of items on the thirty-plus shelves—and most of these are cards of saints. There is no rhyme or reason to why which saint is on what shelf—I guess I like to think they inspire me — and, along with my guardian angel, protect me.

However, in addition to the well-known saints that one can imagine inhabit my office—Mary, Joseph, Padre Pio, St. Patrick, St. John Paul II—I’ve picked up a group of saints’ cards that even I was unfamiliar with. So I thought it might be a good time to reacquaint myself, and my readers, with the saints who share this space with me. In no particular order:

1. Saint Raymond Nonnatus (1204-1240, feast day Aug. 31). He’s pictured in cardinal’s garb—with the giant galero hat on the ground—and in his hands a monstrance and a palm with three crowns. In the foreground is a bag of coins spilling out. A member of the Mercedarian Order, which specialized in ransoming slaves and those taken hostage by Muslims, his last name literally translates into “not born,” which refers to the fact he was delivered by Caesarean section. It’s only a small step from there to see why he is the patron of childbirth and midwives—but on the back of the prayer-card that bears his image, he is invoked by parents to be better parents, and that “our children may be obedient, diligent, humble, and pious and ever observe God’s commandments.” St. Raymond, in addition to ransoming slaves by paying money (hence the bag of coins), actually traded places with a slave, being held by for a month near Tunis. The history on whether or not he was actually made a cardinal is hazy, but tradition has it that Pope Gregory IX added him to the Sacred College but that St. Raymond died en route to Rome.

2. Saint William of York (c. 1099-1154, feast day June 8). “William” is my brother’s name, so I can see how I wound up with this prayer card. The saint is shown attired in full bishop’s regalia, and the picture of St. William radiates a sort of giant halo and he holds a crozier in one hand while the other is raised in blessing. He was born into royalty in England and destined for a top slot in the hierarchy of the Church or the Court. In a sense, he failed at both (for a time): having turned to a life of churchman, he was made the treasurer of the Church of York. Upon the death of Archbishop Walter in 1140, William was nominated to replace him. However, an angry cadre Cistercian abbots and Augustinian priors opposed his consecration, alleging unchastity and simony against William — charges that were without merit—and the undue influence of King Stephen. Various internecine backbiting and syndicating on the parts of the local religious, the diocesan clergy, and, of course, the crown, kept William from taking his see until May 1154. So many of the faithful turned out to greet their exiled ordinary that the bridge they had gathered on gave way and fell into Ouse River. The fact that no one was injured was immediately attributed to William’s sanctity and when he died later that year, his canonization process began immediately and took less than 50 years to complete.

3. St. Richard (1197-1293, feast day April 3). Like St. William of York, St. Richard of Wyche was a British Bishop during late medieval times. His prayer card is an oddity: At his feet rests an empty chalice knocked over on its side. (The legend is that once during Mass he accidentally dropped the chalice, but, miraculously none of the Precious Blood was spilled.) Like St. William, St. Richard’s appointment to the episcopate was opposed — in this case by King Henry III, who had his own man in mind for the see — and both sides appealed to Rome. Pope Innocent IV sided with Richard, but the Saint still had to contend with King Henry’s machinations, which included confiscating Church property and lands—until the pope threatened excommunication. St. Richard was, in addition to being a bishop, an ascetic who wore a hair shirt and practiced monastic austerities—despite the fact that he had taken the mismanaged lands that had belonged to his family and turned them into self-sustaining money-making endeavors (which he then turned over to his brother, Robert). He was also a brilliant scholar, having studied at Paris, and taken degrees from Oxford and the University of Bologna before being consecrated bishop.

4. St. Kevin (c. 500-d. c. 618, feast day June 3). Known in Ireland as Coemgen, he was, like St. William, born of royal descent. He is, perhaps, the prototypical Irish hermit: an unstoppable ascetic who recited the Book of Psalms while immersed in icy water. He was extremely long-lived (he is reputed to have lived nearly 120 years), a founder of many monasteries where he stayed only long enough for them to get settled before moving on, and the center of miraculous stories that are, literally, legendary. However, unlike so many of the Irish monks who, per Thomas Cahill, “saved Civilization,” St. Kevin did not simply retreat far into the West of Ireland (the Aran Isles) and coop himself up in a hut. Instead, he turned eastward and made a pilgrimage to Rome, where he collected many relics for his permanent foundation at Glendalough. Also unlike many other Irish hermits, he seems to have gotten along rather well with his contemporaries, St. Petroc and St. Kieran, as well as King Colman. Miracles followed quickly upon his death and he has been revered as a saint since at least the eighth century.

5. St. Rocco (1295-1378, feast day Aug. 16). My uncle Rocco has been sick lately, so this card is for him. St. Rocco wins the award for the all-time strangest artistic representation: he is shown dressed in what appears to be a makeshift Franciscan habit, with his bloody knee revealed. In front of him is a dog with what appears to be bread in its mouth. Born in France, St. Rocco was orphaned when he was 20. At that point he traveled to Rome to give his life over to caring for the hordes of people dying from the plague there. In one of those “physician-heal-thyself” moments, St. Rocco contracted the disease, too—but then cured himself and continued to perform countless miracles of healing. In one of weirdest stories in the whole of hagiography, St. Rocco was next imprisoned for espionage by his own uncle (who was the governor of Montpellier, France), who failed to recognize his nephew—and St. Rocco neglected to identify himself. This stalemate lasted until St. Rocco died in prison and it was only then that the dead prisoner was found to be a relation, since he had a birthmark in the shape of a cross on his chest. St. Rocco is invoked against plague, pestilence and disease.