St. Mellitus

From Jason John Edwards, Obl.S.B.’s continuing series on monastic saints.

Copied from CelticSaints.org:

Died at Canterbury, England, on April 24, 624. Saint Mellitus was a Roman abbot, probably of Saint Andrew’s Monastery on the Coelian Hill. He is one of the second band of monks sent by Pope Saint Gregory the Great to England in 601 in the wake of Saint Augustine. Gregory sent him a famous letter that modified the pope’s earlier ruling to Augustine. Through Mellitus, Gregory told Augustine not to destroy the pagan temples of the Saxons but only their idols. The temples, he said, should be converted into churches and their feasts taken over and directed to Christian purposes, such as dedications. This directive was important for the whole direction of missionary activity.

In 604, after three years of mission work in Kent, Mellitus was consecrated the first bishop of the East Saxons, with his see in London. As bishop, Mellitus travelled to Rome to consult with Pope Saint Boniface IV. While in Rome Mellitus participated in a synod of Italian bishops concerning the life of monks and their relationship to bishops. The decrees of the synod he carried back to England, together with letters from the pope to Archbishop Saint Laurence of Canterbury and King Ethelbert of Kent, who had built the first church of St. Paul in London.

Mellitus converted the king of the East Saxons, Sabert (Sigebert or Saeberht). Unfortunately, his royal sons did not follow suit. When Sabert died about 616, his three pagan sons (Sexred, Seward, and Sigebert) succeeded him and drove Mellitus out; for they had asked him to give them the “white bread” (the Eucharist), and he had refused because they were not baptized (or had apostatized according to some). Mellitus withdrew to Gaul for a year with Saint Justus of Rochester, who had experienced a similar setback in Kent.

Laurence recalled them both. Soon after Mellitus’s return in 619, he was made archbishop of Canterbury, in 619, to succeed Saint Laurence. Bede says of him that he suffered from gout but that in spirit he was healthy and active, ever reaching out to the things of God: “Noble by birth, he was yet nobler in mind.” Bede attributes the change of wind that saved the church of the Four Crowned Martyrs in Canterbury from incineration to Mellitus’s being carried into the path of the flames to pray. It was Saint Mellitus who built Saint Mary’s church at Canterbury, of which a fragment remains outside the east end of the foundations of the abbey church of SS. Peter and Paul (now Saint Augustine’s).

The feast of Saint Mellitus was observed on numerous English calendars before and after the Norman conquest. He is also mentioned in the commemoration of the dead in the Lorrha-Stowe Missal, together with Laurence and Justus.

His relics can be found near those of Augustine in the abbey church of Saints Peter and Paul in Canterbury.

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