Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of June 6, 2005
A saint's birth room is preserved
The Church of St. Anthony in Lisbon sits above the room where he was born
St-Norbert — June 6
By TED FITZGERALD
Special to the WCR
Many saints and holy people are memorialized with churches large and small, built over their tombs or the sites of their deaths. From St. Peter on, great basilicas and cathedrals honour these stalwarts of the Church, Martin in Tours, Blessed Laval in Quebec, Thomas Becket at Canterbury.
Shrines to identify the birthplaces of saints are less common. An exception is the church of St. Anthony in Lisbon, where the room where the holy man was born is preserved intact beneath the imposing sanctuary.
Anthony was born Ferdinand Bulhon here in 1195 and although greatly venerated in the city and in Portugal, spent little of his life here. At age 15, he joined the Augustinian Order, but later transferred to the Franciscans, hoping to be sent to Morocco as a missionary.
After age 17, he was at a monastery in Coimbra near Lisbon where he prayed and undertook exhaustive Bible studies, but left Portugal for good after 1220 when he travelled to North Africa as a Franciscan missionary.
His Lisbon church, Igreja de Santo Antonio, is a fairly ordinary building that faces west on a small plaza, the Largo de Santo Antonio da S‚, to the left of and immediately in front of the city's cathedral, the S‚ Patriarcal.
It's a memorable experience to attend Mass in this sanctuary so closely associated with the saint and after, to stand in the room where he entered the world. An ancient statue of Anthony, holding the Christ Child, for whom he indulged a life-long devotion, and backed by the lilies of purity, marks the site of his birth.
In the main body of the church, now protected by glass, there is an old painting of the saint. A survivor of earthquakes, the image was threatened by a local tradition that promises success for husband-seekers through the intercession of Anthony if they touch his likeness. In fact, a number of prayers and activities revolve around the saint as a matchmaker and he is often revered more by residents than their city's patron, St. Vincent.
Devotion to Anthony culminates on the eve of his feast day when his image is borne through the streets in procession as a preamble to weddings often celebrated on June 13.
In Morocco, Anthony, a name adopted when he entered the Franciscans, became seriously ill and while attempting the return to Portugal, his ship instead landed in Italy. There he became an associate of St. Frances of Assisi and developed a remarkable ability as a charismatic orator.
Huge crowds gathered to hear him speak, sinners confessed, enemies were reconciled and converts were made. Based in Padua and although in constant poor health, he advocated a life of service and poverty for his associates.
Frustrated in his desire to be a missionary, Anthony instead was directed to achievement elsewhere, a classic example of God's will overriding man's.
One of the more noteable memorials to the saint's name is the large Texas city of San Antonio. Among its prized civic monuments is a bronze statue of San Antonio de Lisbon that surveys passing tourists and conventioneers on the city's famed Riverwalk.
The 1950 work of Leopoldo de Almeida was a gift to the city from the Portuguese government. The saint is also the subject of several other downtown monuments.
Anthony was canonized within a year of his death in 1231 and later was declared a doctor of the church. His intercession is sought universally in locating lost articles and he is a patron of the poor.
And although commonly identified with Italy's Padua, Lisboˆtas will always revere this great personality as their own Santo Antonio de Lisboa.