Did you know that there is a patron saint of cats (and thereby cat lovers)? Well there is, sort of. It's a long and rather convoluted tail, er, um, tale that started way back in the early 7th century when Saint Gertrude was born in an area of what is now Belgium. She had been born into a wealthy family and soon demonstrated that she did not want to follow the status quo laid out for her.

St. Gertrude of Nivelles
St. Gertrude of Nivelles

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At the age of ten she very adamantly and loudly refused to be married off and further stated that did not ever intend to marry. Shocking! After her father died Gertrude and her mother moved to the town of Nivelles (south of Brussels) and started a monastery where she became the abbes. She was best known for her scholarly pursuits, charitable work, and dedicated care of widows, orphans, and pilgrims.

St. Gertrude of Nivelles
St. Gertrude of Nivelles and friend

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She didn't live long by our standards. She went for long periods without food or sleep in devotion to her duties and studies. This took a huge toll on her health and she stepped down as abbess at the age of 30. She died within a few years. She was canonized more than a thousand years later by Pop Clement XII as the patron saint of travelers, the recently dead, gardeners, and the mentally ill. That's quite a broad spectrum. She shares her feast day with St. Patrick who was said to have remained at her bedside as she lay dying.

St. Gertrude of Nivelles
St. Gertrude of Nivelles

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So just how did she make it from there to cats? This is where our journey begins. After she became a saint artists would depict her with mice crawling over her robes and crozier. These paintings and sculptures were meant to convey to the illiterate population (which was just about everybody) what the particular saint took care of. The artists used the mice as a depiction of the newly dead souls she was to care for. That piece of allusion escaped the understanding of the peasants and they took it to mean that she would intervene in rodent infestations and rid them of mice and rats. Of course, this was something far more important to their vermin-ridden lives.

Cat
My recently deceased cat relaxing in her outdoor chair, hopefully now cared for by St. Gertrude.

Photo by Laurie Kay Olson

The association between St. Gertrude and rodents became so strong in Europe that tiny silver and gold mice were left at a shrine for her in Cologne, Germany as recently as 1822. It was said that water from the well at her abbey would rid one of rats and mice. Some antiquated writings do mention that she and her nuns kept cats at the abbey to take care of rodents, but at that time most people did so.

Cat Hunting
My recently adopted cat hunting for mice.

Photo by Laurie Kay Olson

This belief eventually translated into her being associated with cats. During the 20th century, around 1980, she unofficially became the patron saint of cats (and possibly cat lovers). While the Vatican has the power to change her official status and make her the patron saint of cats, no effort has been made on their part to do so.

Regardless of what the Church says, St. Gertrude is the patron saint of cats, who chase and kill mice and rats, who represent the newly dead. And it only took us 13 centuries to make this journey. The full story of this saint is much more complex than what I've posted here. I was just explaining the cat part.

If you would like a St. Gertrude's medal to protect your precious puss, check it out here.

Sources: Mental Floss, Wikipedia, Catster

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