Irish Cross Memorial New Orleans

Irish Cross Memorial New Orleans
The Celtic Cross Memorial in New Orleans, Louisiana. Photo by Adrian McGrath. Click the image for the story about the cross.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Who is St. Patrick?

St. Patrick Cemetery, Number 1
in New Orleans
Photo by Adrian McGrath

By Adrian McGrath

There is an old church in New Orleans on Camp Street named after St. Patrick. He is the patron saint of Ireland who converted the Irish people from paganism (Druidism) to Christianity in or about 432 AD.

There is a cemetery on Canal Street in New Orleans named St. Patrick Cemetery, Number 1. There is another cemetery, also in New Orleans and also on Canal Street, named St. Patrick Cemetery, Number 2.

St. Patrick Cemetery #2,
in New Orleans
Photo by A. McGrath

And there is still another cemetery in New Orleans named St. Patrick. This is St. Patrick Number 3, and it is on City Park Avenue.

There are numerous parades for St. Patrick's Day in New Orleans. In multicultural New Orleans everyone celebrates March 17th. Some parades go through the old neighborhood called the Irish Channel, and others go through the French Quarter and the suburbs.

Some parades are typically Irish; others are multicultural.  One includes the Italians/Sicilians -- who celebrate St. Joseph Day on March 19 -- and another includes the Islenos, who are people with an ancestry in the Canary Islands of Spain. The Islenos immigrants originally settled in fishing villages just south of New Orleans. In reality, in New Orleans, St. Patrick's Day is celebrated by people of all ethnic backgrounds and all religious beliefs.

Entrance to St. Patrick Cemetery #1
on Canal Street in New Orleans, LA, USA
Photo by A. McGrath

There is even a street in the city named St. Patrick Street -- not far from the St. Patrick cemeteries -- and a playground by that name too.

St. Patrick Cemetery, Number One
on Canal Street in New Orleans, Louisiana
Photo by Adrian McGrath

New Orleans is about 4300 miles from a place called Downpatrick in Northern Ireland (or the North of Ireland, if you prefer). There is a graveyard at a cathedral there which is said to be the final resting place for St. Patrick who died on March 17, 461 AD. The exact resting place for St. Patrick is disputed, however.

So, why is this man who lived 4300 miles away and 1557 years ago remembered in a city, New Orleans, so separated from him in time and space? And for that matter, why is St. Patrick remembered in other cities and countries around the World?

The day for St. Patrick was remarkably celebrated in Antarctica too. No kidding. See this story about a St. Patrick's Day celebration in Antarctica.

And St. Patrick's Day was even observed in outer space where an Irish American astronaut, Dr. Cady Coleman  , played an Irish tune on a flute and sent holiday greetings from the International Space Station orbiting planet Earth.

American Astronaut Dr. Cady (Catherine) Coleman
sends best wishes for St. Patrick's Day from
the International Space Station, while playing
an Irish flute and a tin whistle, given to her by
the Irish band The Chieftans. She is floating with the
musical instruments in zero gravity while orbiting planet Earth.
Photo from NASA and Wikimedia Commons

Quite amazing, yes. Although St. Patrick's Day -- his Feast Day which is actually observed on the day he died, March 17 -- had been recognized for centuries by the Church, the first officially recorded St. Patrick's Day celebration in America happened in the Spanish colony of Florida in 1600. That Spanish colony had an Irish priest or vicar named Ricardo Artur (or Richard Arthur) who made the St. Patrick's Day celebration happen. 

The largest St. Patrick's Day parade in the world today is not in Ireland but in New York City. This New York tradition began in 1762 by Irish soldiers who were then in the British Army. Not to be outdone by the British Army, George Washington celebrated St. Patrick's Day with his soldiers during the Revolutionary War. (See my article on this.)

So why has St. Patrick and his Feast Day been remembered with such affection throughout the centuries by so many people? What did St. Patrick do?

Stained glass of St. Patrick
in Cathedral of Christ the Light
in Oakland, CA, USA
Photo from Creative Commons/
Wikimedia Commons, Flickr, Sicarr

The story begins, oddly enough, not in Ireland, but in ancient Britain. His original name was Maewyn Succat, not Patrick; and he was Roman, not English, despite being born in Britain.
(Maewyn later took on the Latin name Patricius, which in English is Patrick.)

Many of the details of St. Patrick's life are uncertain today, and much remains a mystery. We do know that he came from a fairly well-to-do family of Roman citizenship and that his parents were Christians. He was born in the early 5th century AD and may have lived in his early years in Scotland. 

The river dyed green for the Irish
for St. Patrick's Day in Chicago, Illinois, 2009
Photo from Wikimedia Commons and Mike
Boehmer, Chicago/ Creative Commons

The world in those days was still dominated by the Roman Empire, but it was in decline in the West. The eastern empire thrived from Constantinople, but the West fell to barbarian invaders in 476 AD. In the time of St. Patrick, Rome still existed; but the world was changing. Rome was no longer officially a pagan state but had been Christianized under Emperor Constantine.

Nevertheless, paganism prevailed throughout much of Europe. Ireland had not been conquered by Rome, although Romans did visit it somewhat and named it Hibernia, the winter land. 

US President Barack Obama and Irish Prime
Minister (Taoiseach) Enda Kenny celebrate
St. Patrick's Day at the White House, 2012.
Pres. Obama and Mr. Kenny both have on
green ties and green shamrocks. St. Patrick's
original color was blue, but green
eventually won favor as the symbol for Ireland.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Most of what we know about the life of Patrick comes from a book he wrote called Confessio. (See more about the book here.) In it St. Patrick describes his life and his work as a missionary. 

When he was only 16 years old, Patrick was kidnapped by Irish pirates and taken back to Ireland as a prisoner and sold as a slave. He was forced to work for a wealthy Irish chieftain as a shepherd tending to his flock of sheep. (Yes, it had an uncanny symbolism, did it not?)

Stained glass of St. Patrick
Kilbennan, County Galway,
Ireland, St. Benin's Church
Photo by Wikimedia Commons.
Creative Commons, Andreas F. Borchert

Patrick was a prisoner and slave for six years. During that time, although he had not been particularly religious prior to his enslavement, he developed a strong belief in prayer. His Christian faith sustained him during his captivity.  

He escaped somehow and made his way by ship back to Britannia and was reunited with his family. It was said that Patrick was advised by a mysterious voice during a dream on how to make his escape. Was this the voice of God?

After he was back home, Patrick decided that he would become a Catholic priest. He studied for the priesthood and became a missionary. But he had another dream. This time, in the dream, he received a letter called "The Voice of the Irish." In the dream he heard the voices of Irish people asking him to return to Ireland and teach them about Christ.

The fountain in front of the White House
in Washington DC dyed green in honor
of St. Patrick's Day, 2011. Green is the Irish color.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons and US Government

Patrick eventually became a bishop, and in 433 AD he traveled back to Ireland. In the land where he was once held as a slave and labored as a shepherd, he returned as a Catholic bishop and missionary who would lead a new flock, the Irish nation from paganism to Christ.

By using no power but his remarkable powers of persuasion, his will power, and his faith in Jesus, St. Patrick built churches and converted thousands upon thousands of the Irish people. He told the Irish about the life of Jesus and delivered the Gospel to them. 

St. Patrick's Day Parade in New York City,
on 5th Avenue, 1909
Photo from Wikimedia Commons, Library of
Congress, Bain News Service Collection

St. Patrick lived and worked in Ireland as a missionary, usually in a state of poverty and with great physical hardship for almost 40 years. Although there were other Catholic missionaries to Ireland, it was Patrick who was responsible ultimately for turning the Irish away from Druidism to Christianity.

St. Patrick, it was said used the shamrock -- a three leaf clover with one stem -- to explain to the pagans the complex and seemingly contradictory concept of the Blessed Trinity. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were like the three leaves on the shamrock which were connected by one stem forming one shamrock leaf. Like the Celtic harp, the shamrock became the very symbol of Ireland, perhaps greater so because of its religious ties to St. Patrick.

There is a popular story that St. Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland. Of course, Ireland did not and does not have any snakes. What this story most likely means is that St. Patrick drove away the belief of the Irish in paganism and replaced it with a faith in Christianity.

St. Patrick truly did great things and did so in a humble and caring way. He never used force or threats to convert the pagans. He only persuaded them through the power of love -- the love of the words of Jesus.

Evidence of St. Patrick's devotion to the teachings of Jesus is this prayer which he wrote called "Christ Be With Me." There is no doubt that these were not mere words to Patrick because it was the power of Christ that sustained him when he was just a boy being held as a prisoner and worked as a slave. 

St. Patrick devoted is life to helping the very people who had enslaved him find salvation through Jesus Christ.

From "Christ Be With Me" written by St. Patrick:

"Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me.
Christ on my right, Christ on my left, 

Christ where I lie, Christ where I sit, Christ where I arise,
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me, 
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks to me,

Christ in every eye that sees me, 
Christ in every ear that hears me.

Salvation is of the Lord. 
Salvation is of the Christ.

May your salvation, Lord, be ever with us."

St. Patrick died in a place called Saul, Downpatrick, in the North of Ireland on March 17, 461 Anno Domini. 

The spirit and message of St. Patrick's live on centuries later in Ireland, in New Orleans, in Antarctica, in New York, in Washington DC, in a space station in orbit around planet Earth, and where ever and when ever people of faith travel throughout the Universe -- not just the Irish people, but any and all people who hear the healing power of the words of Christ -- or simply follow his example -- by which St. Patrick found Salvation. 

Sources and further reading:

"This Day in History: March 17, 461 Saint Patrick Dies" by the Editors at;, article on St. Patrick.
For St. Patrick's prayer, "Christ Be With Me," see here and here. Wikipedia article on St. Patrick's Day in the USA 

1 comment:

  1. As usual, a wonderful article, Adrian. And St. Patrick's prayer is beautiful. I'd never heard it before. Thanks for that. By the way, my parents were married at St. Patrick's cathedral, and Dad could see its spire from his office and think of Mom every day thereafter.