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Saints and other sinners


Twenty-five years ago or thereabouts, someone gave me a religious medal. About an inch and a quarter tall, it is made of aluminum and bears a relief image of Saint Dymphna. Her story is typical for obscure saints, especially females: widowed father (Irish king) sees the light of his late wife in the blush of his daughter’s cheeks; she flees to Belgium with the court jester, is pursued by her father and beheaded when she continues to resist his amorous advances. You know, boilerplate stuff from reality TV. But the manner of someone’s death doesn’t always predict the circumstances of their canonization. In Dymphna’s case her relics preserved in a church at Gheel, Belgium have become associated with miraculous cures. This medal invokes her protection with the words “St. Dymphna pray for us.”

Incidentally, Dymphna is the patron saint of the criminally insane.

The original Catholic parish at Agincourt, founded in the early 1860s, would typically have borne the name of a dedicatory saint. Many such saints names have ethnic or national connections. Saint David, for example, is the patron saint of the Welsh; Saint Patrick of the Irish; Saint George of the English. Churches dedicated to Saint Augustine frequently serve African congregations, since he had been Bishop of Hippo on the Mediterranean coast of present-day Tunisia. Nineteenth-century Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi is likely to be sainted within the next few years. But there are a large number of canonized lives much less familiar; one might say obtuse. This is especially true in rural Europe where local saints continue to be venerated by their neighborhood populace–and there alone. When was the last time you invoked the name of Blaise, Mungo or Procopius? As a once and former adherent of the Church of Rome, I continue to be fascinated by the sanctity claimed for a relative few of our species.

The canonization process can begin soon after the candidate’s death or centuries later. It depends. Miracles are the usual raison d’etre, but I suspect that politics have much more to do with it. Mother Theresa of Calcutta has already been beatified on the fast track to full sainthood. Controversial historic figures like Pius XII (called “Hitler’s Pope” in a 1999 book by John Cornwell), however, are likely to steal their way through the lengthy process on the coat tails of universally popular figures like his successor John XXIII. But who would be the spiritual benchmark for Agincourt?

Once again, I’m at a loss to explain the source for Saint Ahab. The name came from nowhere and a quick google search found his saintly life unclaimed by any denomination. The circumstances of his canonization are sketchy. At present I can tell you this:

  • He was an obscure Croatian saint
  • His relics were rescued by Crusaders retreating from their failed religious wars
  • They were taken to Agincourt in northern France and installed in a modest Romanesque church
  • He has very likely become the patron of those suffering from OCD

Ahab’s hagiagraphy is yet to be written (perhaps by a local authority on iconography). And his portrait icon will be crafted by Mr Jonathan Rutter, Moorhead artist already deeply imbedded in the Agincourt Project sandbox. Howard Tabor has written a lengthy history of Catholics in Fennimore county, describing that first church already replaced by two successors, but I have yet to interpret Tabor’s word picture.


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