The patron saint of gardeners

Walking through gardens, you’ll often find a sculpture of St. Francis, a pious-looking man wearing a cloak. Still, I always dismissed St. Francis out of hand as the patron saint of gardening: Tradition, I figured, would demand that any saint accorded that honor would have to have been buried alive, mauled by a pair of oxen while tilling bottomland—or, at the very least, a tiller of the soil.

illustration by Peter Loewer

Turns out I was right. The man who devoted most of his monkish life to plants was St. Fiacre—not a quiet man of God but a wild man of the garden, a miracle worker who bargained with the church and is the patron saint of both gardeners and cab drivers. If St. Francis were seen walking down Haywood Street today, he would elicit nary a glance. But if St. Fiacre did the same, even downtown’s more rebellious denizens would stop and stare.

Back in seventh-century Ireland, in a continuing effort to spread the word of God, they sent various monks to Europe, among them Fiacre. Armed with a pilgrim’s staff, reed pens and true belief, these holy men journeyed from country to country spreading the message of God through illuminated manuscripts—an art in which the Irish of that time surpassed all others.

Fiacre soon made a name for himself as a pious monk, but he longed to become a hermit. So the bishop of Paris gave him a place of his own, away from the monastery and deep in the forest, where Fiacre retired to pursue his life’s great work. Clearing a space in the woods, he built an oratory to Our Lady and a small hut for himself. Then he started a garden. And, as is the wont of both gardens and gardeners, it soon grew larger.

Roaming hunters chanced upon the garden and were welcomed with open arms. Marveling at finding such a horn of plenty way out in the gloomy woods, they heard Fiacre preach and watched him heal, using medicines obtained from wildflowers and herbs.

The news spread far and wide, and Fiacre was forced to build another hut for the visitors who came for consultations. Eventually, of course, he ran out of land. So off he went to the bishop to ask for more.

The bishop, knowing a good thing when he saw it, said, “Fiacre, I will give you as much land as you can enclose with your spade in one day.”

Back to his garden went Fiacre. Taking some sticks, he marked off the boundaries of the amount of land he needed—a far greater area than one man could hope to enclose in a single day using only a simple shovel. Then he went into the oratory, prayed for help, and promptly fell asleep.

When Fiacre walked out to the garden the next morning, all the land he’d marked was now encircled by spadework. And when the bishop heard what had happened, he pronounced it a miracle and made Fiacre a saint.

A great Benedictine priory was eventually built where the saint had made his solitary garden, and many healing wonders were credited to his saintly remains. Then, sometime in the 1600s—probably as a result of urban sprawl and population pressures—his bones were moved to the cathedral at Meaux.

So where do the taxicabs come in? It seems that in 1648, a gentleman by the same of Sauvage started a business renting carriages. It was in a building on the Rue St. Martin called the Hotel de St. Fiacre, which had a figure of the saint over the doorway.

Monsieur Sauvage was renting small, four-wheeled carriages with double springs, and pretty soon all Paris coaches came to be known as “fiacres.” The drivers placed images of the saint on their dashboards, naming him their patron.

The English, however, called them “miserable vehicles.” And though Charles Dickens wrote in A Tale of Two Cities that the victims of the French Revolution were taken to the guillotine in tumbrels or carts, I like to think the aristocracy were really driven in fiacres, so that their backs were already in disrepair even before they lost their heads.

But wait—there’s more! In a centuries-old nod to thrift, the Catholic Church often charges its saints with multiple duties, and St. Fiacre is no exception. Whatever the connection (it probably has to do with the ramifications of being a coach or cab driver), our hero not only holds high the hoe—he’s also the patron saint of hemorrhoids.

[Peter Loewer, aka The Wild Gardener, lives in Asheville.]

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