Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of October 25, 2004
He saw Christ's face on a beggar
As a military man, St. Martin once tore his cloak in two to cover a freezing tramp
St. Martin - - November 11
By TED FITZGERALD
Special to the WCR
Visitors exploring the streets of old Tours, in France's midwest, are impressed by the unusual, tall Charlemagne's Tower. An information board there describes the stone structure and explains that it is the survivor of two transept towers that once flanked the nave of the magnificent 13th century Basilica of St. Martin.
Built over the saint's tomb, this glory of Tours, severely damaged during the wars of religion and the French revolution, was ultimately torn down as part of redevelopment of the city's downtown.
Two blocks away, another structure rises above the densely packed business centre. Incredibly, the Tour de l'Horloge is also part of the old basilica, one of two great bell towers that graced the church's fa‡ade. Back past the transept tower and also partly within the limits of the enormous church, is the new Basilica of St. Martin that facilitates the tradition of pilgrimage to the tomb of this great French saint.
Martin was born in present-day Hungary, son of a pagan Roman officer whom he followed into the Imperial army.
At about age 20, he gained fame when he cut his military cloak in half to help cover a freezing beggar. The next evening, Christ appeared to the young legionnaire in a dream wearing his half cloak.
Leaving the army, Martin was soon baptized and enthusiastically adopted religious life. He founded the first abbey in Gaul and became noted for his piety, faith and charity, disdaining worldly comforts. In 372 the residents of Tours insisted that he become the city's third bishop, a position he held for the next 25 years.
During his tenure, he actively fought paganism, replacing temples with churches and chapels throughout the ancient province of Touraine despite opposition from some Gallic bishops because of his distaste for other than monk's clothing and other luxuries.
Within 74 years of the bishop's death in 397, a large church was built over his tomb and the site soon became a pilgrimage destination.
Many cures were reported to have occurred at the grave and the shrine was endowed and patronized by French royalty.
In 853, the basilica was destroyed by Viking raiders, but the saint's remains were saved and the church was replaced by an even grander building. This in turn was demolished in 1808, its existence remembered in the two great towers.
Since the destruction of the old basilica, the area has been built up with stores, cafes and homes and a major shopping thoroughfare, the Rue des Halles, extends down the axis of the church so that visitors might never suspect that they were walking within the confines of a monumental shrine.
The new basilica, completed in 1924, is an impressive edifice. Unusual for its time, St. Martin's is of neo-Gothic style with a prominent dome. It faces south, at right angles to the earlier church with its apse overlapping that of the old one, so that the crypt location of the saints tomb remains in its original position.
The final resting place of Gaul's greatest bishop and patron of the republic is accessed by means of stairs leading to the ancient crypt.
The elaborate monument containing the saint's relics is colourfully decorated and has a roof supported by 12 polished red granite pillars.
Ex-votos cover some of the stones of the chamber's arched ceiling. It's an unexpectedly bright and serene place, well suited for prayer and contemplation.
Finally, obeisance to the saint completed, visitors departing from the church at the main Rue Richelieu entrance and knowing the circumstances of St. Martin's conversion, will find it virtually impossible to ignore the shabbily dressed man seeking alms on the basilica steps.
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