Pictorial Lives of the Saints – Saint Benedict Joseph Labre

portrait of Saint Benedict Joseph Labre by Antonio Cavallucci, 1795, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MassachusettsArticle

This holy servant of God, the son of pious parents, was born 26 March 1748, at Amettes, near Boulogne, in France. His uncles, both on his father’s and his mother’s side, were parish-priests, one at the neighboring village of Erin, and the other at Pesse, which was also quite near Amettes. At the time of our Saint’s birth, a pestilence of irreligion was ravaging France, but the simple faith and humble lives of his parents preserved them from its contagion. The love they lavished on Benedict was repaid with affection and obedience; indeed, the latter was a distinguishing trait of the boy’s character. At one time the priest in charge of the school which he attended intentionally charged our Saint with a fault he had not committed, in order to test his obedience. The boy declared his innocence; whereon the priest, pretending to be angry, accused him of lying, and sent him out for punishment. Benedict made no further defense, but was preparing to receive his punishment, instead of which he met with words of encouragement and approval.

From his childhood, religious instruction always found in our Saint an earnest listener: he served Mass with a devotion that was remarkable, went frequently to confession, and followed with close attention the ceremonies of the various devotions. Even then he was anxious to forsake the world and serve God in solitude. His mother, wishing to discourage what she considered a mere childish fancy, told him he would be likely to suffer for want of proper food; but with a wisdom beyond his years, he answered that the hermits of old lived on roots and herbs, and he could do the same. “But,” retorted his mother, “men were stronger then than now.” “Ah,” replied the Saint, “God’s grace is always strong; and if He supported His servants then, why not now?” Meanwhile he would often sleep on the bare floor with a log for his pillow, and frequently denied himself food.

At the age of twelve he went to live with his uncle, the priest at Erin, a saintly man, who took upon himself the religious education of the boy, sending him to a neighboring school for his Latin and other studies. Benedict’s amiability and docility soon endeared him to his uncle and his teacher, and he was progressing excellently in his studies, when he suddenly evinced a distaste for them which he strove in vain to conquer. Do what he would, he could not revive his old love for his books. One thought filled his mind; one study alone attracted him: how to do God’s will, how best to serve Him. His uncle, who had counted on seeing our Saint ordained and assisting him in the care of the parish, was greatly disappointed when Benedict, now about sixteen years old, announced his intention of joining the Trappists, the most rigorous Order in their vicinity. But the good old man was not to worry long, for about this time an epidemic carried off many of the inhabitants of Erin, and among them the faithful pastor, who sacrificed his life for his flock. Sad in heart, Benedict returned home, where he continued his life of self-denial and penance. Finally, it was settled that he should take up his residence with his other uncle at Pesse. It was soon evident, however, that our Saint’s heart was set on a religious life; and after staying a few months with his uncle, he, with the consent of his parents, started for La Trappe. Although the distance was more than one hundred and fifty miles, he made the journey on foot, over bad roads and in severe weather, and reached the convent, weary and more than half sick, only to be rejected. He was in rags and half dead from exposure and want of food when he arrived home.

Nowise disheartened, he no sooner recovered his strength than he essayed once more to gain admittance to a monastery, but was again refused. Finally, after being rejected five times in all by one or another religious Order, he became convinced that Almighty God willed that he should leave his home and country and journey on foot as a pilgrim to the sanctuaries of Europe. And so he started out. He had no money, nor did he ask for any. His food was bread that was given to him, vegetables, fruit-parings, or any refuse he might find in the street. His clothes were filthy rags, fastened about his waist by knotted ropes. Living this self-imposed penance, separated from society and the charity of those whom he feared might win him from his love for God, he made eleven journeys to the Holy House of Loreto, besides those to other pilgrimages. The Lent of 1783 found him in Rome, sick and worn out by his continued journeyings. On Wednesday of Holy Week, April 16th, his enfeebled body gave way, and he fell fainting on the steps of a church. A butcher who had always taken an interest in the Saint, seeing him in this state, had him borne to his home, where at eight o’clock in the evening, just as the church-bells rang out the Salve Regina, his pure soul passed away, his pilgrimage was ended, and he was at rest in his Father’s house.

That night the cry rang through Rome, “The Saint is dead.” People who shrunk from him living came eagerly to look on his face in death, and the rags which, before, all loathed, were now begged as relics. It is worthy of note that the light of faith was granted one of our earliest American converts, the Rev. John Thayer, a Protestant minister of Boston, while investigating the miracles related of our Saint. Mr. Thayer was in Rome at the time of the Saint’s death, and being in the company of some English friends, the alleged miracles were discussed. The Protestants disbelieved them and sneered at them, but a Catholic who was present offered to wager that no one of the company would dare honestly to investigate them. As a Protestant minister, Mr. Thayer felt bound to accept the wager. He began the investigation in good faith, and as his reward he became a Catholic and a priest.

MLA Citation

  • John Dawson Gilmary Shea. “Saint Benedict Joseph Labre”. Pictorial Lives of the Saints, 1922. CatholicSaints.Info. 14 December 2018. Web. 13 May 2021. <>