St. Gerard Majella A TAILOR FROM SAN FELE
By Tom Frascella
Devotion to St. Gerard Majella has become a world wide celebration. Acknowledgement of his life, faith and miraculous intercessions are conducted in many churches throughout the world on or about his feast day of October 16th. Among those churches where special services are conducted is the Church of St. Lucy in Newark which is designated as his U.S. national shrine. St. Gerard is the patron saint of Muro Lucano and of the Italian State of Basilicata.
Gerard Majella was born in Muro Lucano in 1726. His father, Domenico was a tailor from that town and his mother Benedetta Gillella came from neighboring San Fele about five miles away. Gerard spent his early years in Muro Lucano and although only having access to an elementary education was considered a bright student.
According to the biographies that I have read, his mother would regularly bring him and his older sisters to the shrine of Our Lady of Graces a chapel described as a couple of miles away from Muro Lucano in a place the articles called Capotignano. I was unable to identify that location on a map or the shrine they referenced. However, the articles on Gerard’s early life indicate that the shrine was well known for miracles and that the statue of Our Lady of Graces was of a Ma Donna sitting with and infant Christ Child. Certainly, Di Pierno and the statue there match this description but I am not sure if that is the chapel they refer to.
Among the many stories that are told of Gerard’s early life is that at the young age of four or five he would travel to this chapel on his own and would leave the church with a small white loaf of bread that he said the infant would give him. That he was a pious boy from a very early age appears to be clear. He would fast, and casually relate that he spoke and interacted with the MaDonna and the Christ child as well as the angel Michael. There is testimony from his mother and other town folk supporting “miracles” or unusual events associated with Girard from a very early age including the assertion that the Christ child of the statue would at times animate in his presence.
When Girard was about twelve years old his father Domenico passed away. At that time his mother sent him to live with her brother and to apprentice with a local tailor in San Fele. It is in San Fele that Gerard learned his father’s trade. However his intense religious devotion combined with a strong but humble work ethic continued to be evident while he lived in San Fele. It continued to be clear that he manifested an extraordinary spiritual connection as many signs and unusual religious events became associated with his daily life even as he apprenticed. Many of these special events, including cures, either involved children or were done in the presence of children.
It is difficult from his biography to get an accurate sense of how the local population viewed Girard in this early stage of his life. It would appear that the local folk were split
between recognizing an extraordinary spiritual soul and being very uneasy by at his other-worldly behavior. Apparently enough interest was created that Girard came to the attention of the Bishop of the area Bishop Albini. At sixteen Girard became a houseboy at the bishop’s residence in the town of Lacedonia and remained in that position for two years until the Bishop passed away. While in the employ of the Bishop the minor miracles and events still continued to occur.
In 1744 after the Bishop died Girard returned to finish the remaining two years of his apprenticeship as a tailor. As a master tailor Girard returned to Muro Lucano to open a shop and became the support of his mother. For three years he labored as a competent and successful tailor who gave most of his earnings to the poor. Girard had from childhood felt a strong religious calling and tried unsuccessfully during this time to be admitted into a local Capuchin monastery. However, his years of religious fasting and self denial had left him gaunt and frail looking and it is said that his petition for admittance was denied because the monks did not think he could handle the rigors of their life style.
During the years he labored as a tailor Girard continued to be associated with many unexplained events including a number of healings. One such story involved a young child named Amata Guiliani who had been accidentally burned by boiling water. According to local account Gerard comforted the little girl whose screams of pain he had heard. As placed his hands on the burned skin, the child was said to have immediately quieted and smiled. The next day there were no traces of the burns.
In 1749 a religious retreat was held in Muro Lucano conducted by missionaries of a newly formed order that would become known as Redemptorists. It was with this order that he was finally accepted as a lay brother and began his religious life. In 1752 after three years of training he made his Profession and was given his first assignment back to Muro Lucano. Again, he is said to have laid hands on an injured child who had fallen from the Cliffside and was thought to have died. Once again the child recovered without evidence of the original injury.
The examples and actions of Gerard during his lifetime place him among a select group of what are described as ascetic saints. Like many of these saints, St. Gerard is said to have demonstrated spiritual ecstatsies, prophecy, discernment of spirits, penetration of hearts, bilocation, levitation and the power to heal. In this way he is often compared to St. Aquinas.
In failing health Gerard was sent to the town of Oliveto Citra to rest in 1755. Gerard is said to have predicted both the nature and date of his demise. While there he is said to have given a handkerchief to a local woman shortly before his death. The woman later experienced a difficult delivery and it was thought that she and the baby would not survive. The woman asked for the handkerchief that Gerard had given her and prayed for his intercession. It is said that both the pain and complications of the delivery immediately ceased and a healthy child was delivered.
From that event, the expectant mothers of that village began the tradition of passing the handkerchief to each other, a tradition that symbolically continues today as handkerchiefs are blessed and touched to St. Gerard’s relic and distributed in Churches such as St. Lucy’s during his feast day.
St. Gerard was beatified by Pope Leo XIII in 1893 and canonized by Pope Pius X in 1904.
Many of the “miracles” associated with the intercession of Gerard both while alive and after his death have involved either children or women experiencing difficult pregnancies. Today as a result especially of the story of the miracle concerning the birth in Oliveto Citra and the tradition of the handkerchiefs he is best known as the patron saint of expectant mothers.
© San Felese Society of New Jersey
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