Every now and then, and on International Cat Day, the Internet will mention that St Gertrude of Nivelles is the Patron Saint of Cats. The image above shows St Gertrude with mice at her feet. Now, while St Gertrude was never formally canonised by the Roman Catholic Church, she was considered extremely devout and worthy of veneration and is considered the Patron Saint of Travellers, Cats, the recently deceased, gardeners, the mentally ill (#crazycatlady) and those who were frightened of rats and mice.
St Gertrude was a 7th Century Abbess who, along with her mother Itta, founded the Abbey of Nivelles which is located in present day Belgium.
Gertrude’s father, Pippin the Elder, tried to force then 10 year old Gertrude to marry a lesser royal to further his own political and economic ambitions. Very sensibly, Gertrude refused. Her Mother, Itta, to prevent the vile father from taking Gertrude away from the family home by force, arranged to have Gertrude’s hair shaved into a tonsure which essentially forced Gertrude to get herself to a nunnery.
Shortly after this, the local Bishop Amand visited their home and convinced the mother Itta to start a monastery along with Gertrude. Gertrude’s Mum, Itta, then founded Nivelles which was a double monastery for men and women, cloistered obviously. Because of their decision to enter religious life, both Itta and Gertrudge were shunned by the local nobility.
Gertrude spent her young and short life running the monastery, praying endlessly, taking Communion, being chaste, wearing hairshirts and welcoming travellers and cats. She devoted herself to the sick, elderly and poor and she also built churches, took care of orphans, widows, captives and pilgrims. She received numerous travelling religious envoys and became known as a lesser Saint and Patron Saint of travellers.
She also took in a lot of cats to reduce the rodent population most likely to minimise the spread of disease particularly those nasty, virulent, Ebola-like Black Plagues which were so popular at that time. There was local folklore suggesting that St Gertrude had some sort of magical power over rats and could repel them with her cooking being the culinary equivalent of Big Pharma’s rat poison.
There are now websites dedicated to St Gertrude and her love of cats.
Her Feast Day is St Patrick’s Day – March 17. She died young, aged 33 after a life of hardship, fasting, austerity and prayer.
She is depicted in art as an Abbess with mice, rats or cats who are seen running up her pastoral staff or cloak. Her prayers and devotion towards the Souls in Purgatory has been represented artistically or symbolically by the placement of hopeful little mice poised at her feet.
Because of her willingness to take in travellers, sailors would pray to her to be delivered to their destinations safely. And they often were. The power of prayer – “Praise the Lord”.
The 1981 Catalogue of the Metropolitan Museum of Art was the first English language publication to depict St Gertrude as the Patron Saint of Cats.
I can only say that I am very glad that cats have their very own Patron Saint – Gertrude of Nivelles to watch over them, and us.