Patron Saints for Girls: The Life of Saint Bridget

detail of a Saint Brigid of Ireland stained glass window, Saint Joseph's Cathedral, Macon, Georgia, USA; artist unknown; photographed by the author summer 2003The holy patroness of the Irish churches was born at Faugher, near Dundalk, in or about the year of our Lord, 453. Her parents were of the royal race, for her father, Dubtach, was closely allied to Con, surnamed of the Hundred Battles; and her mother, Brocessa, belonged to the illustrious house of O’Connor. It is quite certain that Saint Patrick saw and blessed Saint Bridget, for she must have been twelve years of age at the time of his death; and it is more than probable that the sanctity of this holy maiden was known to that glorious Apostle. A fact stated in the Tripartite life of Saint Patrick, confirms this. It is there related that Saint Bridget was once present, together with vast multitudes, listening to a sermon preached by the Apostle, and that she fell asleep during the discourse, and while in this state she had a vision, which revealed to her the actual and future vicissitudes of the Irish church. “On awaking,” says the authority quoted, “Saint Patrick commanded her to tell what she had seen.” At this period she might have been ten or eleven years old. From her tenderest infancy she applied herself to the acquirement of sanctity, and devoted every moment of her time to the study and practice of the most austere virtues. Admirably educated in every branch that can dignify a true Christian, she distinguished herself above all her compeers by her singular modesty and unbounded charity to the poor. One of her earliest historians, Cogitosus (the Thoughtful), takes special pleasure in recording the wonderful charity of Saint Bridget, and clearly points out how pleasing that charity was to God, and how by means of it this blessed maiden found favour in His eyes. Cogitosus, in his record of the simple and patriarchal times in which Bridget lived, tells us that her parents gave her charge of their cows, and sent her into the fields to tend them and assist their servants in making butter. Now it so happened that there were many poor people in the district of Faugher, and Bridget, commiserating them, was wont to bestow a portion of the butter and milk on the poor, the representatives of Jesus Christ. On one occasion, says Cogitosus, she gave all the butter she had made to the poor, and then with a firm confidence in God, besought Him to bear her harmless with her mother. God heard her prayer, and interposed so miraculously, that she was enabled to bring home more butter than all her hand maidens, who thenceforth began to regard her as the special favorite of the Most High. In the excercise of such holy practices Bridget passed her early years, communing incessantly with her God, and thanking Him for the great blessing of conversion which He had bestowed on Ireland, through the instrumentality of Saint Patrick. Her parents now began to think of espousing her to some one suited to her position, and illustrious origin, and therefore communicated their intentions to her. Bridget, however, preferred devoting her virginity to Jesus Christ, for she had resolved to consecrate herself to Him. The parents, being ambitious of nothing so much as the sanctification of their child, would not thwart her holy design and they therefore allowed her to repair to a disciple of Saint Patrick, Maccaleus the bishop, who at this period was at the hill of Usny, in Westmeath. The bishop commending her pious resolution, and, doubtless, being well aware that the postulant who now knelt before him, was destined to shed lustre on the Irish Church, “clothed her with a white cloak, and placed the white veil on her venerable head.” “The wooden platform of the altar whereon she knelt,” says Cogatosus, “recovered its freshness, and continued green to a very late period.” At the time of her consecration, many of her companions imitated her blessed example, and took the veil along with her. Saint Maccaleus appointed Bridget to preside over these nuns, and it is likely that they all went to reside in the, district near Kilbeggan, at a place known in the ancient records as Teghbrighide, or Bridget’s house.

The sanctity of this consecrated virgin was soon known throughout the length and breadth of Ireland, and multitudes of young women and widows repaired to Bridget, beseeching her to admit them into her institution. The inconvenience of locating as many in one place, and the vast amounts of good that were to be achieved by distributing so many holy women through various regions of Ireland, assigning to them the districts in which they were born, influenced the Irish bishops to invite Bridget to visit their dioceses, and to found in each of them establishments like that which had now rendered her so celebrated.

Saint Mel, bishop of Ardagh, was one of the first to invite Bridget to his diocese for the purpose we have specified; and the second in all likelihood, was Erc, bishop of Slane, with whom she went into Munster. This bishop publicly proclaimed in the synod held in the plain of Femyn, that the Almighty had bestowed on Bridget the power of working miracles. Like our Apostle, Bridget may be said to have visited almost every part of Ireland, and indeed the multiplicity of localities denominated Kill-bride, (Bridget’s church or cell) is an evidence of this. At Knockany, in the county Limerick, we find her obtaining the freedom of a captive from a chieftain, and after the performance of this act of Christian charity, she appears in south Leinster, whence she went to pay a visit to her parents. Leaving the paternal roof, she proceeded to the plain of Hai, in the county of Roscommon, where she established many communities according to the rule of het institute.

Here it is necessary to state that in the earliest times of Christianity, before monasteries or nunneries were formed, it was usual for the nuns solemnly consecrated by the bishops, to live with their relatives and friends. They subsequently established great communities, and began to observe strict enclosure, that they might be free to live according to the holy spirit of their vocation. This fact accounts sufficiently for the journeying of Saint Bridget and her nuns through the various regions of Ireland.

While Saint Bridget was founding her cells and monasteries throughout Connaught, Benignus, the immediate successor of Saint Patrick, died. This was in 468. Benignus was succeeded in the primacy by Jarlath. At this period Ireland began to be celebrated for its ecclesiastical seminaries, amongst the most famous of which were those of Armagh, Ardagh, Louth, and that presided over by Asicus, the bishop, at Elphin. There were communities of holy women likewise, prior to the time of Saint Bridget, but it does not appear that they amounted to more than two, one in Tyrone, and another near Armagh.

It would seem as if God had especially reserved for Saint Bridget the grand work of founding monasteries for women in her native land – monasteries that were destined to leave imperishable names in the annals of Irish ecclesiastical history. Lupita, the sister of Saint Patrick, was foundress of the monastery of Armagh, but Bridget was chosen by God to excel the sister of our apostle by the number and the splendor of her institutions.

Although Saint Bridget was born in the North of Ireland, her family was originally of Leinster, and the inhabitants of this province thought that they had strong claims on her consideration. They, therefore, in the year 490, sent a deputation to her praying that she would leave Connaught, and come and establish herself in the province of Leinster amongst her own kindred. Saint Bridget complied with the request, and was joyfully welcomed at Kildare where a residence was assigned to her and those of her institute who accompanied her. Thus was laid the foundation of that far-famed monastery which took its name from a great oak that grew there – Killdara, being interpreted, the cell or church of the oak.

The piety of chieftains and princes endowed the monastery of Kildare with grants of land for its maintenance, and the holy Abbess was now in a condition to exercise her cherished love of charity to the poor. On one occasion we find her relieving the necessities of the indigent, by bestowing on them some valuable sacerdotal vestments which used to be worn on the most solemn occasions. Her hospitality to strangers and particularly to religious persons, was unlimited, and such was her humility that she was wont to tend the flocks in the fields. From every part of Ireland multitudes now hastened to Kildare to beseech her intercession, for all regarded her as one especially blessed by God. Many of those pilgrims would not return to their homes, but chose rather to live near the Saint, for from her the infirm received healing, the poor copious alms, and the rich those sublime examples of Christian life so necessary for the attainment of the kingdom of heaven. In this conflux of the rich and poor, the healthy and the ailing, originated the city of Kildare.

The number of applicants for admission to the monastery now became so great that Saint Bridget was compelled to enlarge her first foundation. Furthermore, it became necessary to provide extensively for the spiritual guidance of the inhabitants of the new city, and a bishop was accordingly appointed to preside over the church of Kildare. This was Conlaith, a holy recluse, who dwelt in a cellon the plain of the Liffey. “He came in his chariot to Bridget, and after staying a few days with her, was the first bishop of the city of Kildare.” He was consecrated about the year 490. Prior to the appointment of Conlaith, Nathfroich, the priest, was the spiritual companion of Saint Bridget, and we are told that he used to read for the nuns while they were taking their meals in the refectory.

Kildare was not exalted to the condition of a see, and the Abbess, according to the authority of Cogitosus, was revered by all the other abbesses in Ireland. Maccaleus the bishop, from whom Saint Bridget received the veil, died in the year of Conlaith’s consecration, two years after the demise of Saint Mel, who invited the holy abbess to visit his diocese of Ardagh.

The church or cathedral of Kildare had a chapter, and the bishop, together with the collegiate’ body and clerical ministers, used to approach the altar by a door on the right side, when about to immolate the holy and Lord’s Sacrifice. “There was another door on the left side, by which the abbess and her nuns entered when coming to enjoy the banquet of the body and blood of Jesus Christ. The great aisle had a partition which divided the males from the females, and each division had a door peculiar to itself. The dwelling place or monastery of the nuns stood on one side of the cathedral, and that of the bishop and his chapter on the other.” This pithy description of the church of Kildare written partly by Cogitosus, nephew of Saint Bridget, is quite sufficient to show how admirably the Catholic ritual was observed in the days of our Saint, while at the same time it testifies to the perpetuity of Catholic faith in the holy sacrifice of the altar and the real presence of Christ in the adorable Eucharist. Meanwhile Catholicity was flourishing throughout Ireland, and many of the bishops who had seen and conversed with our glorious Apostle had gone away to receive the eternal rewards of their labors. Jarlath of Armagh, Mel of Ardagh, and Asicus of Elphin, had consummated their labors, and left their names inscribed on the calendar of the Irish Saints. During the lifetime of Saint Bridget, all the Irish princes with one exception had embraced the saving faith of Christ; and the sole exception to the converted princes and chieftains was Lugaid, son of the monarch Leogaire, who withstood the preaching of Saint Patrick and persevered in heathenism. Heaven, however, punished Lugaid signally, for he was killed by lightning in the year of our Lord 508. The name of Christ was now glorified throughout the whole island; temples, seminaries, and monasteries of holy men and women were everywhere springing up, and nothing remained of the old superstition, which, prior to the coming of Ireland’s Apostle, debased and enslaved the souls of the Irish.

This series of grand events brings us down to the beginning of the sixth century, when a great multitude of the Irish people crossed the sea and settled amongst the Scots in North Britain, to whom they brought the blessings of Christianity. This immigration took place about the year of our lord, 503, about three years before the demise of Saint Maccarthen, bishop of Clogher. Thus were the Irish made the medium of diffusing the inestimable benefits of religion and civilisation amongst the barbarous tribes who at that period knew not the true God.

In the year 519, Conlaith, the first bishop of Kildare and the intimate friend of Saint Bridget, passed out of this life to receive the eternal reward of his apostolic labors.

The institutions of our Saint were now to be found in every region of Ireland, and we have reason to believe that she founded a monastery at Armagh. To her we may fairly attribute the origin of the Bridgetine nunnery in that far-famed city. Her life was an uninterrupted series of holy acts, and she seems to have occupied herself entirely in promoting the good of others. God was ever present to assist her by His almighty interposition; so much so that the historian Cogitosus devotes many pages to record the many miracles which Heaven was pleased to perform through the instrumentality of His chosen handmaid.

To that spot where her church is now crumbling to decay, and where the sacrilegious innovators have left more mournful traces of ruin than even the wasting hand of time, came multitudes of the poor, the rich, and the infirm, to receive counsel and solace from the holy patroness of the Irish churches. In seasons of dearth, she was implored to plead the cause of the starving with Him who giveth all things, and He hearkened to her supplications. The blind, the dumb, and the lame, obtained healing at her hands, and an entire nation from sea to sea gloried in the living splendor that had uprisen amongst them.

The most eminent personages of her period were wont to correspond with her, and consult her on the weightiest matters. Saint Ailbe of Emly used to visit her and take counsel with her on matters regarding the maintenance and advancement of religion. Gildas who taught at Armagh, and went thence to preach Christianity to his compatriots, the Britons (in 508), sent her a present of a bell cast by himself. This fact and every other of the same nature, may be taken as a proof of the hallowed antiquity of all Catholic usages. Saint Brendan of Clonfert (“the Valley of Miracles”), whose seven years’ voyages are so famous, visited our Saint and conferred with her on religious subject before he sailed from, Brandon-bay, in 554. These facts are evidences of the wonderful sanctity and wisdom of Saint Bridget.

Need we say that the attention of our, grand patroness was especially given to cultivating and sanctifying the souls of her own sex, for whom she provided schools and shelter in the religious state?

An instance is recorded of her watchfulness over male youth, which we will insert here. Walking one day with some of her community, she saw a youth named Nennid, running very rapidly and, as she deemed, in an unbecoming manner. This youth probably belonged to the college, founded in Kildare by the bishop Conlaith. Saint Bridget sent after the youth, who, being asked by her whither he was running, replied sportively, “I am running to the kingdom of heaven.” “I wish,” said the Saint; “that I deserved to run along with you today to that kingdom; pray for me that I may arrive there.” Nennid deeply affected by her words, asked her to pray for him. She did so, and the youth ever afterwards led a most holy penitential life. She then foretold that this Nennid was one day destined to administer to her the last sacraments of the Church. Hearing this, Nennid resolved never to soil the hand that was to convey the Viaticum and Extreme Unction to the dying Saint, and he was ever afterwards known as Nennid, surnamed Lamhghlan, or the clean-handed. In course of time this Nennid received priest‘s orders, and had his name inscribed in the calendar of the Irish Saints. He is said to have visited Britain and Rome.

At length the time of Bridget’s translation to the kingdom of heaven drew nigh. Finding that her death was instant, Nennid, “the priest of prophecy,” came to administer the last sacraments to her, and she resigned her spotless soul into the hands of her Redeemer, in the monastery of Kildare. The death of this illustrious servant of God occurred on the 1st of February, in or about the year 523, a few years before the birth of Saint Columb-Kille. Saint Bridget lived to be seventy-four years of age.