St. Gertrude of Nivelles, Patron Saint of the Recently Dead

A brief profile of St. Gertrude of Nivelles

Saint Gertrude of Nivelles, patron saint of the recently dead. Detail from a stained-glass window within the Basilica of Our Lady, Tongeren, Belgium.. Photo © GFreihalter

The Catholic Church venerates more than 10,000 men and women as saints so, not surprisingly, many unexpected objects, activities and even geographic areas, among numerous other things, are associated with specific patron saints. For example, St. Drogo is the patron saint of gallstones, St. Columbanus of motorcyclists, and St. Anselm of Lucca is the patron of Mantua, Italy (but not nearby Verona, apparently).

This article offers a brief profile of another Catholic saint, St. Gertrude of Nivelles, the patron saint of the recently dead.

The Life of St. Gertrude of Nivelles

Born to a prominent family sometime around the year 626 in Landen (in present-day Belgium), Gertrude's influential father, Pippin the Elder, invited the king, Dagobert, to dinner when Gertrude was 10 years old. During this meal, the king asked the young girl if she would like to marry his son "for the sake of his worldly ambition and mutual alliance." (Royal families often arranged marriages for their children in those days in order to form politically and/or personally advantageous alliances.)

Even at this young age, Gertrude apparently knew what she wanted and therefore not only rejected the king's invitation but also lost her temper and stated that the only earthly spouse she would ever accept was "Christ the Lord."

A few years later (circa 640), Gertrude's father died, causing her newly widowed mother, Itta, to worry about her daughter's safety, given their royal and political prominence, and the vast tracts of land the prominent family owned.

Therefore, Itta first "tonsured" Gertrude's head by shaving the crown of her daughter's scalp bald as a sign of the girl's religious devotion -- a hairstyle commonly worn by medieval Catholic monks of the time. Next, Itta built a monastery in Nivelles, Belgium, in which she and her daughter would live out their remaining days.

Devoting their lives to the Catholic Church in this fashion would help protect the family's holdings and wealth while precluding the unsolicited and unwelcome advances of suitors, who still sought Gertrude's hand in marriage for personal and political gain.

When Itta died in 650, her daughter assumed control of the monastery as abbess. During her tenure, the devout Gertrude led a life of charity, prayer and fasting. Moreover, she garnered a reputation as someone hospitable to traveling pilgrims, missionaries and evangelists -- particularly to Irish monks traveling abroad to spread the Catholic doctrine.

Weakened by a lifetime of abstinence, including the necessary nourishment provided by food, Gertrude eventually needed to relinquish her role as abbess of the monastery at some point before her death. She continued to reside within the Nivelles monastery, however, and still devoted herself to prayer and acts of humility until her death in 659. At her request, Gertrude was buried wearing an old veil and a hair shirt -- the latter being a coarse garment made from goat hair, which is extremely uncomfortable and something typically worn to mortify the physical body as a symbol of self-denial and devotion to the spiritual world.

After her death, Gertrude's example of religious piety and humility spread due, in part, to promotion by her still-prominent surviving family members after her death. In 1677, Pope Clement XII established her universal feast day (March 17), even though Gertrude was never formally canonized as a Catholic saint.

So Why is Gertrude the Patron Saint of the Recently Dead?

Because she died at age 33 (depending upon the dates you use), and because of the similar example she established during a lifetime spent focused on religious piety, humility and charity, Gertrude of the Nivelles monastery was strongly associated with Jesus, who died at the same age during his crucifixion.

Tradition once held that, similar to Jesus, the newly dead experienced a three-day journey between this world and the next. Because of her reputation as someone hospitable to travelers during her lifetime, popular lore stated that Gertrude hosted these newly deceased on their first night after dying (with Michael the Archangel hosting them the second night). Her association with the newly dead continues to this day, and numerous secular and religious websites offer St. Gertrude pendants, medallions, prayer cards and other mementoes online for those grieving a death.

You Might Also Like:
St. Anthony, Patron Saint of Gravediggers
St. Joseph of Arimathea, Patron Saint of Undertakers

"St. Drogo." Catholic Online. Retrieved November 22, 2014.

"St. Columbanus." Catholic Online. Retrieved November 22, 2014.

"St. Anselm of Lucca." Catholic Online. Retrieved November 22, 2014.

"St. Gertrude of Nivelles." Catholic Online. Retrieved January 24, 2015.

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