Saints Patrick and Joseph: the Patrons of Nations

When I was growing up on Milwaukee’s south side in the 1960’s, I learned an entire litany of saints’ names as I rode my bike past churches named for Adalbert, Hyacinth, Patrick, Sava, Wenceslaus, and many more. While I knew that my Polish friends went to mass at St. Hyacinth’s, I didn’t realize that the immigrants who founded the congregation had named it for one of Poland’s patron saints. Similarly, I didn’t know that Sava is the patron saint for Serbia or that Wenceslaus is one of Bohemia’s patrons. The only exception to my ignorance about national saints was Patrick who is, I learned with thanks to St. Patrick’s Day parades and the greening of the nearby Chicago River, Ireland’s patron saint. Even my German-Lutheran mother who often cooked corned beef, cabbage, and potatoes on March 17, helped reinforce the connection.

Shamrock Floor Tile, St. Colman's Cathedral, Cobh, Ireland 1. Shamrock Floor Tile, St. Colman’s Cathedral, Cobh, Ireland

So, with St. Patrick’s Day just behind us and St. Joseph’s Day upon us, one of my goals for this post is to contrast these two saints as national patrons. I think it’s probably fair to say that most Americans can identify the tie between Patrick and the Irish people. But how many would know that St. Joseph, Mary’s faithful husband and Jesus’ kindly father (or foster father), is a patron saint for no less than 14 nations including Canada and Mexico in North America, and Austria and Belgium in Europe? St. Joseph, as a national patron saint, seems to have fallen off the map! What accounts for it? We’ll consider some of the possibilities below. But first, let’s look at St. Patrick’s story and legend as it appears in stained glass and sculpture.

St. Patrick  St. Patrick is perhaps one of the easiest figures to recognize in church art because his attributes (identifying emblems) are familiar in popular culture. He often appears with a shamrock or a snake. You’ll find a curious example of the latter at St. Mary’s church in Iowa City. There, a smiling green snake coils beneath the saint’s feet at the base of a plaster statue (photo #2). The snake refers, of course, to the legend that Patrick miraculously drove all the snakes out of Ireland.The story is more apocryphal than factual in the sense that many Christians associate snakes with evil and St. Patrick was long regarded as the first to drive the “evil of paganism” off the provincial island that Rome called Hibernia. Scientists offer a slightly different explanation. They credit the last Ice Age for the absence of snakes in Ireland, so it’s safe to assume there were no serpents underfoot when Patrick first stepped on Irish soil as a slave in the early 400’s.

2. Smiling Snake, St. Mary's Church, Iowa City, IA 2. Smiling Snake, St. Mary’s Church, Iowa City, IA (click to enlarge)

The story of Patrick’s bondage and escape from slavery and eventual return to Ireland is the stuff of drama. Artists at the Washington National Cathedral uniquely captured some key scenes from Patrick’s account of his life in a niche sculpture above an archway in the south aisle (photo #3).

St. Patrick Sculpture, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC 3. St. Patrick, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC

St. Patrick wrote in his Confessio that he grew up in a Roman town called Bannavem Taburniae in western Britain. When he was about 16, Irish pirates captured the future saint and sold him into slavery. The scene on the left side of the sculpture’s base shows Patrick being led into captivity, bound with a rope (photo #4). Patrick reported that he worked as a shepherd during his six years in bondage. The  scene on the right side of the base shows him tending sheep or other farm animals. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Patrick also “used the time to pray, in contrast to his earlier years in Britain when he ‘knew not the true God’ and did not heed clerical ‘admonitions for our salvation.'” Patrick eventually escaped, returned to his family in Britain, and trained for the priesthood. Around the year 435, he returned to Ireland, standing in the prow of the boat you see in photo 3, and established himself as Ireland’s bishop. His rustic cathedral at Armagh in modern day Northern Ireland appears at the center of the base in photo 4.

4. Base of St. Patrick Sculpture, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC 4. Base of St. Patrick Sculpture, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC (click to enlarge)

At the bottom of the base a snake slithers through a ground cover comprising a tangle of shamrocks. The presence of the three-leafed plant alludes to another popular legend about St. Patrick in which he used a shamrock to teach the Christian concept of the Holy Trinity, a three-in-one God, to the pagan Celts. Like the snake, a shamrock often appears with images of Patrick, as in the bishop’s crosier that Patrick holds in a window at Milwaukee’s All Saints Cathedral (photo #5). Note that Patrick is paired with St. Columba, founder of the renowned medieval monastery on Iona. Columba and St. Brigid, abbess of Kildare, are Ireland’s two other patron saints.

St. Patrick (L) and St. Columba (R), All Saints Cathedral, Milwaukee, WI 5. St. Patrick (L) and St. Columba (R), All Saints Cathedral, Milwaukee, WI

You’ll also find St. Patrick holding a shamrock sprig in a statue at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City (photo #6), and in stained glass at St. Wenceslaus Church in Iowa City (photo #7) where the congregation originally consisted of both Bohemian and Irish parishioners.

St. Patrick Statue, St. Patrick's Cathedral, New York, NY 6. St. Patrick Statue, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York, NY
7. St. Patrick Window, St. Wenceslaus Church, Iowa City, IA 7. St. Patrick Window, St. Wenceslaus Church, Iowa City, IA

This window also shows how St. Patrick is often shown wearing green to associate him with the “Emerald Isle.” His robe and mitre are entirely green. Contrast this with a window at Albany’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in which Patrick wears green and blue (photo #8). Is the color combination more than a mere fashion statement? It probably is. Irish patriots fought against the British under different flags. The green harp flag was first used by the Catholic Confederation in the 1640’s during its bloody conflict with the English parliamentary government led by Oliver Cromwell. Little more than a century later, the chivalric Order of St. Patrick adopted blue as its color. But green prevailed. By the end of the 18th century, green was forever linked with Irish nationalism through its association with the Society of United Irishmen in their 1798 rebellion. The window in Albany subtly symbolizes this history by combining shades of green and blue in  St. Patrick robes (photo #8).

St. Anthony of Padua (L) and St. Patrick (R), Immaculate Conception Cathedral, Albany, NY 8. St. Anthony of Padua (L) and St. Patrick (R), Immaculate Conception Cathedral, Albany, NY

St. Joseph  Today, March 19, is St. Joseph’s Day. In times past, it was a holy day of obligation during which practicing Christians dutifully attended Mass where they would be reminded of Joseph’s fidelity as a husband and father. It follows then that he is the patron saint of fathers and, for that reason, people in Spain, Portugal, and Italy celebrate a version of Father’s Day on St. Joseph’s Day. A statue of Joseph at the Cathedral of St. Paul in Minnesota honors Joseph as the head of the Holy Family (photo #9).

St. Joseph, St. Paul's Cathedral, St. Paul, MN 9. St. Joseph, St. Paul’s Cathedral, St. Paul, MN

Owing to his occupation as a carpenter, Joseph is moreover the patron saint of cabinetmakers, carpenters, craftsmen, laborers, and working people in general. But in a sense Joseph’s patronage knows no bounds. That’s because, in 1870, Pope Pius IX (Pio Nono), declared him to be the “Patron of the Universal Church.” In other words, he’s the patron saint for all Christians!  So, why aren’t a hundred thousand people parading today through the streets of Boston, Chicago, and New York in St. Joseph’s honor?

I suspect that there are many reasons. The most obvious one, perhaps, is that all those people are still recovering from the recent St. Patrick’s Day parades. Another (more serious) reason is that nations like Belgium and Croatia–where Joseph is a patron saint for the nation–didn’t send as many immigrants to the U.S. as Ireland. It might also be that Patrick is so popular in Ireland because he actually lived and worked there. As far as we know, Joseph never made it to central Europe. His only recorded international travel took him in the opposite direction to Egypt.

But I think it goes deeper than all of that. When we visited Belgium a few years ago, I noticed that its cities all have a different patron or patrons. Saints Michael and Gudula, for example, are the patron saints of Brussels (photo #10). Bavo is the patron saint of Ghent (photo #11, below), Walburga is Antwerp’s patron, and so on. As far as I know, none of Belgium’s major cities named Joseph as its patron saint.

Why not?

St. Gudula Statue, Cathedral of Sts. Michael & Gudula, Brussels 10. St. Gudula Statue, Cathedral of Sts. Michael & Gudula, Brussels

I think the answer boils down to politics. Austria acquired Belgium in 1714 after the War of the Spanish Succession. Belgium and the Dutch Low Countries then formed a region called the Austrian Netherlands. It was part of the larger Austrian Empire that comprised Austria, Bohemia (modern Czech Republic), Croatia, Hungary, Romania, Serbia, and Slovenia. The empire’s capital city was Vienna from which the Hapsburg family ruled for hundreds of years. The royal family’s patron saint happened to be Joseph.

In 1717, a girl named Maria Theresa was born into that family. She acceded to the empire’s throne in 1740 when she was only 23 and unprepared to rule a far flung empire that had no common ethnicity, no common language and, following the Protestant Reformation, no common religion. The empress believed that she could promote unity in the realm by imposing her Roman Catholic faith on her subjects. In the process, many Jews and Protestants faced a choice between conversion or banishment and confiscation of their property.

St. Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium 11. St. Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium

In 1771, Maria Theresa took her quest for national cohesion an odd step further. She decreed that instead of celebrating local patron saints on their feast days, only the feast of a joint national patron saint would be celebrated. Predictably, the bishops agreed to name Joseph as Austria’s patron saint. As members of the Austrian empire, Belgium, Croatia, and Slovenia perhaps reluctantly followed suit. It’s probably no big surprise then, that Joseph lost some of his appeal in reaction to Maria Theresa’s effort to force her family’s patron saint on her subjects. In the end, true devotion can’t be coerced.

I’m dedicating this blog post to the memory of Joey Scoblic, my nephew, who died on his birthday in December 1998.

Copyright 2015, Michael Klug,, March 19, 2015

2 thoughts on “Saints Patrick and Joseph: the Patrons of Nations

  1. As usual, I love the historical contexts that help me understand. But seriously Michael, I think you left out the most important historical and genetic facts (and I say this as a humble yet proud Irishman): it’s a proven fact that the Irish simply tell better stories and therefore have more memorable legends than the Belgians or the rest of the European crew in general.
    By the way, do the Wisconsin Badgers have a patron saint to help them out tonight?
    Thanks for the education Kluger, even if you did leave out some important facts.

  2. Wags: I agree…it was an unfortunate omission based largely on my ignorance of those unassailable facts to which you refer. As for the Badgers patron, I think King Gambrinus, the “patron saint” of brewing, is probably the best candidate. And wouldn’t you know it, his legend derives from Belgium. 🙂

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