Saint Gertrude of Nivelles, the Patron Saint of Cats

St. Gertrude of Nivelles on a stained glass window; Basilica of Our Lady in Tongeren, Belgium

Born in 626 into a noble family in what is now present-day Belgium, St Gertrude was expected to do many things were her life  marry into a suitable noble family chosen by her father, bear children, and dutifully do what she was told. She wasn't too keen on this, though, and wasn't afraid to say so. When her father hosted a banquet for the king, the king summoned Gertrude to his presence and asked her to marry the son of a duke. She reportedly lost her temper and "refused him with an oath", declaring that not only would she not marry this young man, but she would marry no young man at all, and her devotion was only to Christ.

When Gertrude's father died, she moved with her mother Itta to Nivelles, where they built a monastery. They ran the monastery together, and eventually Gertrude took over completely as abbess. She was devoted to scholarship and charity, taking caring of orphans, widows, and pilgrims. When her mother died, Gertrude used the money her mother had left to her in her will to build churches, monasteries, and hospices. Gertrude reportedly knew most of the Bible by heart, and was known to have spiritual visions. She lived an ascetic lifestyle, which left her weakened by the age of 30 when she resigned as abbess in favor of her niece in 656. Gertrude then devoted herself to prayer and study, dying three years later at the age of 33. Saint Patrick (with whom she shares a feast day, March 17th) himself is said to have watched over her on her deathbed.

St. Gertrude de Nivelles, from the Hours of Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg (1490-1545), Archbishop and Elector of Mainz (Wikimedia Commons)

Quite soon after her death, Gertrude was venerated as a saint, with churches built in her name and miracles attributed to her. One such miracle involved a couple of Irish monks who lived in Nivelles, who embarked upon an ocean voyage. During their journey, they encountered a sea monster who had threatened to capsize their ship, but when the monks invoked Gertrude's name, the sea monster was banished and the monks survived to tell the tale upon their return to Nivelles. This is also perhaps the origin story for the "Sinte Geerts Minne" or "Gertrudenminte", a drink drank by pilgrims and seafarers in Gertrude's honor before journeys to ensure safe passage.

Due to Saint Gertrude's reputation for hospitality, she was also considered the patron saint of travelers and the recently dead (the former because in popular folklore at the time, the recently deceased took a three-day journey to get to the afterlife, and their first night as newly dead was spent in the care of Gertrude), as well as gardeners (perhaps because fair weather on her feast day in mid-March is the signal of the beginning of the planting season) and the mentally ill.

Saint Gertrude of Nivelles and an Augustinian Canoness (Wikimedia Commons)

Over time, Saint Gertrude also became associated with rodents. This is possibly due to medieval artists representing souls in purgatory with mice and rats, and Gertrude was known to pray for souls in purgatory. Her iconography often included little mice and rats climbing her robes and other items in the depiction. Saint Gertrude's connection with rodents solidified as veneration of her spread, and she was eventually the one to whom people prayed when they were plagued with rodent infestations. The water from her abbey's well in Nivelles was said to ward off rats and mice.

Her association with cats, however, is much more recent  to the tune of the past few decades. The Roman Catholic Church has never actually made her patronage of cats official, and the first documentation of Saint Gertrude being associated with cats was in a 1981 catalogue, Metropolitan Cats, published by the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Some must have taken her association with being called upon to ward off rodents as a sign that she was definitely a cat person, and since then many paintings of Saint Gertrude holding cats have circulated. Some claim she is also the patron saint of cat owners, as well. Even though the Church hasn't formally recognized her as the patron saint of cats, most patron saints are assigned their duties by popular tradition anyway rather than by official recognition.

St. Gertrude of Nivelles, by an anonymous Flemish painter ca. 1530



Sources:

Debenedette, Valerie. “Saint Gertrude of Nivelles: The Patron Saint of Cats (More or Less).” Mental Floss, 17 Mar. 2017, www.mentalfloss.com/article/93339/saint-gertrude-nivelles-patron-saint-cats-more-or-less.

Jestice, Phyllis G, editor. Holy People of the World: A Cross Cultural Encyclopedia. Vol. 3, ABC-CLIO, 2004.

McNamara, Jo Ann, et al., editors. Sainted Women of the Dark Ages. Duke University Press / Books, 1992.

Ostberg, RenĂ©. “Meet St. Gertrude, Cat Lady of the Catholic Church.” U.S. Catholic Magazine - Faith in Real Life, 16 Mar. 2020, uscatholic.org/articles/202003/how-st-gertrude-of-nivelles-became-the-cat-lady-of-the-catholic-church/.



Written by Skye Isabella Rose Iwanski

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