First in an occasional series looking at our local Catholic Saints in France
When you have an interest in religious and church antiquities you will invariably find things beyond Jesus and the Virgin Mary. Living in rural France, we often find antique devotional items made for local Saints. Nobody seems to know quite how many Saints there are, never mind how many in just France. The Catholic Church venerates at least 10,000. Officially, the Church teaches that all people in heaven are saints, but some are officially “canonized,” or recognized as having lived lives of heroic Christian virtue and are worthy of imitation.
Furthermore some will have miracles attached to them, which may be cause for veneration. During the church’s first 1,000 years, saints were proclaimed by popular demand. More recently the process has become centralized and bureaucratized but the old Saints are often still venerated locally. According to the Church, Divine worship in the strict sense reserved only to God and never to the Saints. One is permitted to ask the Saints to intercede or pray to God for persons still on Earth, just as one can ask someone on Earth to pray for him. Hence Saints will have religious artifacts or reliquaries or devotional items made for them. Saint Christopher, for example, is well known to me though the number of travelers I've met with his image on a medallion for good fortune. Antique Catholic Saint medals are, of course, highly collectible!
In our part of France we have plenty of Saints whose lives are almost unknown outside the region. Just up the coast is the beautiful town of Biville, a tiny cluster of grey stone houses on a wild and windy coast. In the late 12th Century Biville was birthplace to Thomas Hélye. Originally a teacher he became schoolmaster ("écolâtre") for Cherbourg but became "born again" following a near fatal illness. He then lived a life of fasting and mortification in his native parish. Encouraged by his local Bishop he completed pilgrimages to Rome and Santiago de Compostela and studied theology before becoming a missionary to the dioceses of Avranches and Coutances.
(Medieval Avranches via Remparts de Normandie)
It might sound odd to have a missionary in a Catholic country but Vikings were raiding and settling across the Cotentin only a hundred years previously. Old Norse paganism was still very much alive across this part of France. Hélye passed away in 1257 and was canonized by vox populi soon after his death as many healing miracles were attributed to him. He was officially beatified by Pope Pius IX in 1859. Importantly he's not a Saint, but the Church seemed to approve his life and veneration. His tomb was rebuilt in the choir of the small church at Biville and is still there today. Thomas' skeleton is visible under the marble and glass shrine.
We were lucky to visit on a beautiful bright blue day- perfect spring weather!
The interior of the small church was illuminated by vivid stained glass.
The church, just off an incredible beach, is still a site of pilgrimage. The church actively promotes his life and seems proud to hold his relics. Until the nineteenth Century his devotional following was larger and there was a cult (for want of a better word) around him. For example, we have this item.
Its unmistakably Helye and he is represented as a saint, though the text gets the date of his death wrong. Nevertheless time and energy has gone into assembling this by hand- from the brass wire holding the mother of pearl font to the gold stitching. It's another little reminder of the way lives were for the faithful, and not that long ago.