Most people express confusion when I tell them my family’s patron saint is St. Anthony of Egypt. Why wouldn’t they? We’re full-blooded Italian. Italy has so many saints to choose from. And we have no connection to Egypt at all.
But, God willing, come the Egyptian’s Jan. 17 feast day, we will once again sit down before a big meal and celebrate his intercession on our behalf.
St. Anthony of Egypt (c. 251-356) is called the “Father of All Monks.” That’s when he’s not being identified as St. Anthony the Great, St. Anthony Abbot, St. Anthony of the Desert or St. Anthony the Anchorite.
He’s often asked for assistance in fighting skin disorders. But, among Italian farming families, he is most frequently asked to protect the lives and health of domesticated animals.
Despite my urbane, Big Apple demeanor (ahem), I come from a long line of farmers.
Though many contemporary Catholics might balk, St. Francis of Assisi is more properly the patron of birds and the ecology, not animals per se. Pigs and other domesticated animals are the special provenance of St. Anthony of Egypt.
So it was with special fondness that I thought of him when I visited my maternal ancestors’ small hometown in Italy for his feast-day celebration three years ago.
Getting to Quindici wasn’t easy. It’s a train to Naples (about 120 miles south of Rome), another one east to Avellino and, finally, a 90-minute ride in a rickety bus into Quindici.
More on that in a minute. First let’s take a closer look at the saint who is so beloved here — and so often overlooked elsewhere.
A proto-Franciscan figure (he preceded Francis by nearly a millennium), St. Anthony of Egypt wanted to live an authentic Christian life amidst imperial persecutions. Giving up all claims to his family’s wealth, he eschewed the urban lifestyle of spiritual and moral distractions for a simpler life. He built a hermitage in the Egyptian desert near a solitary monk who had preceded him in a life wholly dedicated to Christian prayer.
He also took instruction from any and all holy persons he encountered, humbly asking them to instruct him in piety and penance.
Before long, men began coming to him for guidance in finding God in the loneliness of the desert. Until this time, all monks had been solitary hermits. In 304, St. Anthony established a place where the “loners” could come together to pray, work and study as a community: the first monastery.
St. Anthony hoped to be martyred during one of the many persecutions in the region, but this was not to be his fate. Instead, God led him to support Christians who had been arrested for celebrating the Eucharist.
St. Athanasius, bishop (d. 373), supported the desert project so strongly that he was moved to write a magnificent biography of St. Anthony. In it he described the many temptations from which the desert dweller suffered and his ultimate victory over them.
Anthony spent the remainder of his years creating monasteries and helping St. Athanasius spiritually battle Arian heretics. The Lord called Anthony to his final rest at the venerable age of 105. His iconography includes the tau-cross, a pig and a book. He’s frequently depicted as being hounded by demons.
In Quindici, I found the St. Anthony Chapel lovingly decorated, and learned it was one of 20 churches built here during the Renaissance. Christmas decorations still adorned the lampposts and the buildings of the tiny village. The chapel is tiny compared to the major house of worship in this tiny hamlet, the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie. (This beautiful edifice, well preserved inside and out, features a museum showing various antiquities and relics — well worth a visit if ever you’re in the neighborhood.)
Quindici has a population of just 3,000. The day I visited, I think every single citizen was out in the street to ask the saint for protection of their livestock.
The Quindicese and their cows, pigs, horses, dogs, sheep and goats were all in attendance in the plaza in front of the chapel. The people were dressed against the cold weather, while their four-legged companions were festooned in colorful ribbons, caps, saddles, capes and collars.
Eventually a priest bundled up in a heavy parka came out of the chapel. Armed with an aspergillum and accompanied by an acolyte, he made sure that every living thing got sprinkled and blessed.
Children eagerly waited for the blessing of their pets. Every now and again a messy “accident” had to be cleaned up, or a skittish animal had to be calmed, but the priest was determined to make his rounds.
After the blessing, the crowd dispersed to collect wood for the bonfires lit in honor of St. Anthony. Each neighborhood competed to make the tallest and most ferocious fire. They illuminated the dark night — just as Christ’s light illuminates the darkness of the world, I thought, even in its furthest reaches. The desert of Egypt. A tiny town in rural Italy. In God’s eyes, no peopled places are unimportant.
My family gave up the agrarian lifestyle when they moved to the United States, but our devotion to St. Anthony has never faltered. So it was good to reconnect with my family’s roots — and wonderful to experience, even if only vicariously, God’s whisper in the desert.
Angelo Stagnaro is based in
New York City.