Our martyr-saint, Peregrine, is not to be confused with the Italian confessor, Saint Peregrine Laziosi, O.Serv. (1265-1345), patron of cancer patients. In keeping with the tradition of Saint John’s Abbey, visitors to our Shrine of Saint Peregrine offer prayers, especially during the Easter season, for young men and women discerning their vocations.
The story of our saint, according to legend, begins under Emperor Commodus in the year 192. On the anniversary of the emperor’s birthday all Rome was to pay homage to him as the demigod Hercules. On the appointed day Commodus appeared clad only in a lion-skin, crowned, a club in hand, expecting not only adulation but also adoration from the Romans. He received, of course, what he demanded; but the more intelligent chewed on laurel leaves to hide their laughter and so to save their heads.
A community of Christians in Rome, devoted to prayer and to the poor, was most eager to die for Christ. Four young men were especially prominent: Eusebius, Vincent, Pontian and the boy Peregrine. When they heard of the blasphemous conduct of emperor and people, they were inflamed with holy fervor. Incited by the Holy Spirit, they hurried into the streets condemning the revolting Roman practices.
“O dear friends,” they cried, “abandon the worship of demons. Give honor to the one God, the Blessed Trinity, the omnipotent Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Do penance and be baptized, lest you perish together with Commodus!”
Martyrdom of Julius
Among the results of their heroic street preaching was the conversion of the Roman Senator Julius. The newly received gift of faith burned brightly in his soul; he made the poor the beneficiaries of his wealth and his pagan associates the object of his zeal and eloquence. Christ became the object of his love stronger than death. Soon Commodus heard about Julius and put him in chains. In prison Julius was given the alternative of worshiping the Emperor or suffering death. Julius did not hesitate. Peregrine and his companions found his battered body outside the amphitheater; lovingly they buried it.
Trial by Torture
The senator Julius had been wealthy. Where, asked the emperor and others of his type, had his fortune gone? The senator’s Christian friends, Eusebius, the boy Peregrine and the rest, would know; they must be made to speak—the dungeon would reveal all. If not, torture on the rack would surely separate them from their unworldly faith, would draw forth the desired knowledge. No results? Then let whips and lashes be added. Constancy in Christ prevailed. A final torture: let burning torches be applied to their naked limbs. From the tongues of the sufferers, however, arises a joyous song: “Glory be to the Lord who has granted to exalt us with such visitations!” Look! A radiant youth, an angel is standing among them—with a sponge he is soothing their scorched members, shielding them from the flames.
Instantly one of the torturers who witnessed the apparition shouted his belief in the faith of the tortured and hurried off for baptism. Back in prison the four Christians passed day and night in prayer and holy meditation. Christians came to console and left consoled. The gift of miracles was attributed to the heroic sufferers. Had not the jailer himself asked for baptism?
The emperor became furious; he would put a stop to their evil influence. He gave them one final chance to denounce their faith. If they did not, then the sentence: death by flogging with leaden scourges. Devout Christians recovered the bodies and buried them in the peace of the Lord, August 25, 192 A.D. Small portions of Saint Peregrine’s relics are solemnly venerated every August in the Collegiate Church of Altavilla Irpina, near Avellino, Italy.
Veneration of Relics
Attachment to the tokens of a beloved one springs from the deepest of human affections. God’s grace, building upon human nature has “supernaturalized” this trait by giving to Christians one of their most ancient spiritual practices, the devotion to the saints through reverence of their mortal remains. We read in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “The religious sense of the Christian people has always found expression in various forms of piety surrounding the Church’s sacramental life, such as the veneration of relics, visits to sanctuaries, pilgrimages, processions, the stations of the cross, etc.” It was the happy privilege of the Christians at Rome lovingly to gather the holy remains of the boy-martyr Peregrine and reverently to bury them in the catacombs.
Rome to Neustadt
The bodily remains of Saints Aurelian and Peregrine were the priceless possession of Abbot Kilian Kneuer, OSB, who returned with them from Rome to his monastery at Neustadt am Main, Germany, in the year 1731. At the abbey church at Neustadt, the relics were placed in side altars and became the object of great popular veneration. The Blessed Sacrament and these relics were the only objects heroic hands could save when a disastrous fire demolished the church in 1854.
Across the Sea
The title to the Benedictine abbey at Neustadt, together with all its possessions, including the sacred relics, had been conceded to the Loewenstein family as reimbursement for losses on the Rhine during the Napoleonic wars. While on a visit to his homeland of Bavaria in 1895, Father Gerard Spielmann, OSB, a monk of Saint John’s Abbey, petitioned the Prince of Loewenstein-Wertheim for the relics of Saint Peregrine. Prince Karl-Heinz, the brother and father of Benedictine nuns, granted the request. The documents authenticating relics were finally prepared, and the treasure was entrusted to the care of Father Gerard. On Good Friday, 1895, the precious relics were temporarily reposed in Saint Anselm’s Church, Bronx, New York, where Father Gerard was stationed as assistant pastor.
To Saint John’s
Since the rebuilding of Saint Anselm’s Church necessitated the removal of the body of Saint Peregrine, Abbot Alcuin Deutsch, OSB, petitioned that it be brought to Saint John’s Abbey in accord with the original intention of the donor that the relic remain under Benedictine auspices.
Solemn translation of the relics occurred on May 6, 1928, the fourth Sunday after Easter. This exceedingly rare solemnity began with a procession bringing the sacred bones into the abbey church on the evening previous; solemn Vespers followed. A pontifical votive mass in the saint’s honor was celebrated the next morning after which, in solemn procession, the relics were conveyed to the basement chapel of the abbey church. Four monks clothed in red chasubles bore the reliquary. After the Te Deum had been sung, the Most Reverend Joseph F. Busch, Bishop of Saint Cloud, attested the authenticity of the relics and signed the resum of the ceremonies. The document was placed in the reliquary that was then sealed by the Bishop and placed beneath the high altar of the chapel for veneration by the faithful.
The treasured remains of Saint Peregrine are in an excellent state of preservation. The body, covered with silk and silver filigree and brightly ornamented, is preserved with other relics from the old abbey church in a chapel especially designed for the basement of Marcel Breuer’s new abbey church. The relic chapel and crypt altars were consecrated on July 19, 1961. The saint’s feast day is celebrated annually on the fourth Sunday after Easter, the liturgical anniversary of the final translation. Abbot Alcuin Deutsch, OSB, introduced the custom of fervent prayer for vocations on this anniversary.
192: Peregrine, Eusebius, Pontian and Vincent martyred at Rome under Emperor Commodus; bodies buried and venerated in the Roman catacombs; commemorated in the Martyrology on 25 August.
1731: Body acquired by Abbot Kilian Kneuer, OSB, for Neustadt am Main Abbey, Bavaria; litany of Saint Peregrine composed; feast celebrated on fourth Sunday after Easter; popular pilgrimage shrine.
1803: Monks driven from Bavaria; confiscated monastic properties of Bronnbach and Neustadt — including churches and relics — given in compensation to Prinz Karl von Lowenstein-Wertheim (1783-1849), Schloss Kleinheubach-am-Main.
1854: Church destroyed by fire; Blessed Sacrament and body of Saint Peregrine survive miraculously; sixth Prince builds new church.
1895: Fr. Gerard Spielman, OSB, Collegeville monk serving as assistant pastor of Saint Anselm Parish, NY, convinced His Serene Highness Prince Karl-Heinz von Lowenstein-Wertheim (1834-99; the brother and father of Benedictine nuns on the Isle of Wight) and Ferdinand von Schloer, Bishop of Warzburg, to restore the relic to the Benedictines. The body of Saint Peregrine arrived in New York on Good Friday; Most Rev. Michael Augustine Corrigan, third archbishop of New York, authenticated the relic; Peregrine enshrined at Saint Anselm Church in the Bronx.
1927: According to the original intention of the donor concerning Benedictine guardianship, the body of Saint Peregrine was moved to Collegeville on 10 October.
1928: Relic translated with great solemnity on 5 May from the abbey to the high altar of the brother’s chapel in the basement of the abbey church.
1953: 3 May, 25th anniversary of the translation commemorated by transfer and solemn exposition of the relic to the abbey church and special prayers for vocations. Peregrine’s translation was recalled liturgically at Collegeville, until the new calendar, on the Fourth Sunday after Easter.
1961: Saint Peregrine, the boy-martyr, enshrined in the relic chapel in the abbey church designed by Marcel Breuer; crypt altars consecrated on 19 July.
2002: Saint John’s University Alumnus, Mike Murphy, and local printer, Don Bruno, produced the above text in a brochure about Saint Peregrine. On 2 May 2002, Mr. Murphy presented the first copies personally to Abbot John Klassen, OSB, and Fr. Virgil O’Neill, OSB.