Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of March 24, 2003
In search of St. Vincent Ferrer
Magnetic preacher remembered in medieval vintage island in Brittany
St. Vincent Ferrer -- Feast Day -- April 5
By TED FITZGERALD
Special to the WCR
Sea-girt Saint Malo is famed in history and literature. Its seafarers have, from earliest times, sailed the world. And its citizens, from Jacques Cartier to fictional Herve Riel to the feared coastal Corsairs, have made the little island a part of the lore of the sea.
It's a storybook medieval citadel with castle, ramparts and bastions armed with ancient cannon still defiantly faced seaward. And, within its intimidating stone walls, the Cathedral of St. Vincent Ferrer towers above its crowded houses, shops and cafes, a memorial to a charismatic Spanish preacher who spent the last years of his life travelling in Brittany.
Saint Malo takes its name from a seventh century Welsh disciple of Irish St. Brendan. Malo (or Maclou or MacLow) was a seafarer and gifted preacher, famous for his miracles, who settled at the mouth of the Rance River at a place that, in 1152 was designated the new bishopric of "Saint-Malo-de-l'Isle."
Walking the city's great wall gives visitors spectacular views seaward as well as into the crowded town. The main city gate is guarded by a granite statue of legendary origins. This image of Notre-Dame-de-la-Grand'Porte has been venerated since 1633 and is the focus of religious ceremonies each year on the feast of the Assumption (Aug. 15).
Beyond this gate, the cathedral honours the memory of St. Vincent, who died not far from Saint Malo on April 5, 1419. After a lifetime spent in the academic world and participating in the mending of schisms that wracked the Church in the 14th century, a vision called the 48-year-old to embark on a new calling of preaching repentance all over western Europe. He became noted for his miracles and cures and for returning thousands of lapsed people to the Church. Popularly venerated after his death, he was quickly canonized in 1455.
Begun in the 12th century, St. Vincent's is no longer a bishopric but residents cling to its former designation as a cathedral. As attested to by several plaques in the church, it's been restored after severe damage inflicted by Allied air raids in 1944.
And the famous spire, said to resemble a shepherdess' cap, again towers over the old city. Architectural styles in the building range from Angevin to Gothic to Anglo-Norman with some old Roman parts. It's a pleasure to explore in its usual quiet semi-darkness. Stained glass, including a stunning rose window, provides appropriate soft illumination of the sombre nave.
Visitors to the Church might be forgiven for thinking that its patron is one Jacques Cartier. His presence seems to infuse the old stone edifice. Master-pilot Cartier, a native of Saint Malo, undertook three expeditions of discovery to the St. Lawrence River area between 1534 and 1542.
A plaque commemorates the occasion when, on May 16, 1535 the bishop blessed his newest venture. On that trip he stopped at the future sites of Quebec City and Montreal and is generally considered to be the discoverer of Canada, which he named.
Cartier was buried in the cathedral, the precise location unknown until Second World War damage disclosed the spot. In 1972 restoration of the cathedral was celebrated with a requiem Mass during which the remains were re-interred and the tomb identified.
The church's fine organ is a gift from the Government of Canada to honour Cartier, while another plaque honours the sailor in a small side chapel. And, outside, dominating the defensive Holland Bastion on Saint Malo's historic wall, Cartier in effigy, larger than life, gazes steadfastly at the watery horizon, his ship's wooden tiller in the firm grip of a famous discoverer.