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The popularity contest never ends.  Not after high school, not after Junior League, and, apparently, not after death. Not even if you are a saint. 

This is news to me.  Sure, I was aware that some saints are more well-known than others, and that it's apparently illegal in the state of California to have a garden that does not feature a prominent St. Francis statue, even if you're Jewish.  But I never knew one could be a saint and be considered, by vast numbers of people, unworthy.  And not just any saint, mind you.  My saint.

It started on my birthday, June 2nd.  It was our second day in Rome.  The day began perfectly, with Mass at the Chiesa del Gesu, which is the main Jesuit church in Rome.  (I'd try to tell you how beautiful the church is, but I'd be wasting my time.  I'll scan photos later.) Afterwards, we went shopping, and I decided that what I really wanted, more than anything on earth, was a statue of St. Ignatius of Loyola.  Since he spent most of his post-conversion life in Rome, and since there are two enormous churches built there in his honor (the Chiesa del Gesu and St. Ignatius' Church, a couple of blocks away), I figured it would simply be a matter of going into one of the zillion gift stores and choosing between their nice selection of St. Ignatius statues.  I was wrong.

At the first store, which was filled to the rafters with gorgeous hand-carved wooden Madonna's and apostles and saints, I made my request.  The woman looked puzzled.  "Who?" she asked.  Figuring it was a language thing, I said, "San Ignacio."  She still look puzzled.  "Of Loyola," I added.  Now it clicked and she nodded.  "Oh, si," she said.  "I know who you mean.  We don't have a statue of him."  I politely  asked if she was certain.  She nodded and assured me, "We only have statues of the important saints."  

I decided it would be a waste of time to explain that he was important to me, and to many other people, including 25,000 Jesuits worldwide -- not to mention their friends and families who don't know what to buy them for Christmas -- and that surely St. Ignatius merited at least a medal.  (Which they also didn't have.) We moved on.   


This experience was repeated at every store within reasonable (by European standards) walking distance of the Vatican, with pretty much the same attitude. Many clerks could never understand who I was talking about, and the rest just shook their heads or showed me lovely statues of St. Francis and St. Anthony and St. Luigi, whoever he is.  

The next day we resumed our quest.  What had started as a little birthday shopping had turned into a mission.  (Which was appropriate, since the "unimportant" St. Ignatius is the patron saint of missions...) Our little group of companions grew to include our friend Sister Karen, an Italian speaking American nun.  We figured both the improvement in communication skills and the habit would help us make some progress.  Wrong again.  The same routine, and sometimes worse.  Many clerks shaking their heads and doing the kind of "Oh, no, no, no, no" thing that can only be done by an Italian who doesn't approve of your request.  (I got the same response while ordering dinner, more than once.)  The attitude is: "It's of secondary importance that we don't have what you want.  The real problem is that you shouldn't want it."

Having inherited the strong streak of tenacity that runs in my family, especially among the females, I was not going to take "you shouldn't want that" for an answer.  I came up with a brainstorm.  There is a nun who belongs to Sister Karen's order (The Daughter's of St. Paul) who carves beautiful statues and often does work by commission.  I would simply get her to carve a St. Ignatius for me.  We set off for the Daughter's of St. Paul's Vatican gift shop.

My friend Barbara, whose command of Italian is only slightly better than mine (which means slightly better than "Dove il bagno?") went with me to the shop, where Sister Karen was to meet us after she and Chris returned from the top of the Copula of St. Peter's.  (A trip Barbara and I had passed on after seeing the winding staircase that went to the top and deciding we'd both rather have a CAT scan, which would have been much less claustrophobic...) 

We approached the nearest nun, in case by some miracle they happened to have a statue already made and in stock.  (A miracle was possible at this point, because I now had my nun friends praying, through the intervention of the much-maligned St. Ignatius -- who undoubtedly has more clout in Heaven than he has in Rome gift shops.) 

I gave it a shot.  "St. Ignatius?" I asked, pointing to the wall of statues.  "Who?" the nun asked.  (By now this was a familiar routine.) I tried again.  "San Ignacio  de Loyola."  The nun still looked puzzled.  Barbara tried.  "Il fundatore de las Jesuitas."  The lightbulb went off.  "Ooooohhhh.  Si, si, si," the nun said, smiling broadly.  She knew who we meant.  We'd broken through the first barrier.  Then the smile disappeared and she began to shake her head vigorously.  "Oh, no, no, no, no." 

At that point, Sister Karen arrived.  She began to ask about the possibility of Sister Angela doing the statue on commission.  For what seemed like a week, the older nun couldn't understand the concept.  Then Sister Karen said something that finally made sense to her.  "Oooooh.  Si, si, si," she said.  My hopes were raised again, but immediately her head changed direction, the smile disappeared again and her answer morphed into, "No, no, no, no." 

I couldn't figure why on earth I wouldn't be able to commission a statue, so I listened intently as she and Sister Karen discussed the prospect.  I could understand enough to know that the nun was saying that there were no symbols for the statue.  Having already anticipated this, Barbara and I had already spent lunch "designing" the statue.  (Including about ten minutes of joke ideas, like St. Ignatius in a cap and gown with fifteen diplomas...)  Barbara described, through Sister Karen, what the statue could look like.  I pointed out, through Sister Karen, that it would be fine if it looked just like the enormous one in a very prominent position in the middle of St. Peter's Basilica, the big white church two doors down the street!

The nun shifted gears.  It wasn't merely a problem of symbols, she said. It was the fact that St. Ignatius hadn't been dead long enough to deserve a statue.  This was more than a little bit intriguing, coming from a woman who was standing in front of an entire shelf of Padre Pio's  -- someone who has been dead for fifteen minutes and isn't even a saint!  

I surrendered.  I bought Moses, who has been dead for a very long time and comes with no-brainer symbols. But Moses didn't improve my mood.  By now it wasn't really about my birthday any more.  It was about the abuse that was being heaped upon my spiritual hero. 

We moved on to Florence.  We spent a couple of days there and then spent the rest of the trip in Venice.  We continued to ask for St. Ignatius when we went into gift shops.  We continued to get the same answer. 

On our last day in Italy, Sister Karen and Barbara were supposed to meet us at our hotel at 11 a.m. for some last-minute sightseeing.  They arrived thirty-five minutes late (totally out of character for both of them) and out of breath.  Between huffs and puffs, Barbara managed to say to Sister Karen, "Do you want to tell her, or should I?"  This would have raised my hopes again, but they didn't look very happy.  "We found St. Ignatius," Sister Karen said.  "In a little gift shop in the middle of the square." 

"That's great," I said, still puzzled.

"No it's not," Barbara piped up.  "It was the wrong St. Ignatius."

So much for the "there are only statues of important saints" excuse.  I didn't even know there was another St. Ignatius. (I have since discovered that this was St. Ignatius of Antioch, so no need to start e-mailing me or pitying my ignorance.)

Barbara, having caught her breath, filled in the blanks.  "You don't even know," she said.  "We have been to absolutely every gift shop in Rome, Orvieto, Florence and Venice.  We have been laughed at, scoffed at, sneered at, mocked, and a couple of times just plain ignored.  We were so upset.  We wanted so badly to hand it to you.  We've been praying every morning, but there is apparently no statue of St. Ignatius of Loyola in Italy."  

There was still one chance left, they informed me.  The very nice women who owned the shop with the wrong St. Ignatius had promised to look through all their catalogs and see if they could find anything. We headed for the shop, but I was completely ready to hear that they hadn't had any luck.  

The shop was the only place in Venice with a window full of wood instead of glass, and their statues were the most beautiful I'd seen in all my searching.  The women looked happy to see us come in, but immediately began to apologize.  "I'm sorry," the younger one said to me, after I'd been identified as the lunatic searching for a St. Ignatius statue.  "There isn't a statue anywhere.  The only thing we can offer is to have our carvers make one for you."  

I couldn't believe what I was hearing.  "They'd do that?" I asked.  "Yes.  We called them.  It's just a man and his son in the mountains, but they're very good."  She still sounded apologetic.  I couldn't figure out why.  "Good," I said, tentatively.  "There is a problem," the woman said, to the surprise of no one in our group.  "What?" I asked.  "It would have to be 51 centimeters."  I asked how tall that was -- as if I cared -- and she showed me a beautiful St. Francis carved by the man and his son in the mountains.  It was about twice as tall as the other statues in my collection, but that seemed appropriate.  I wanted to hug her, but I was afraid she wouldn't understand. 

Trying to drizzle only slightly on my parade, Chris called me aside and voiced concerns.  What if we commissioned the statue and then hated it?  What if they carved the wrong St. Ignatius?  What if they carved someone who didn't look like St. Ignatius at all?  As he was trying to make his point to a very unwilling listener, the shop's proprietor appeared from upstairs with a book of saints and a huge blowup of a tiny St. Ignatius prayer card I'd given him.  He was going to send it all to the man and his son, he said.  Then he was going to make the four hour drive to the mountains to make sure they understood.

So, in a month and a half, I will be the proud owner of what will apparently be the only privately owned hand-carved Italian  statue of St. Ignatius in the world.  I'm sure it will be incredible.  And I'm already planning the letter-writing campaign, to explain to the man and his son why St. Ignatius needs to be added to their catalog -- even if I have to order ten more myself. 

My friend Sister Anne, another Daughter of St. Paul who shares my obsession with St. Ignatius, tried to explain the Italian attitude.  "The story goes," she tells me, "that when St. Ignatius, Francis Xavier, Teresa of Avila and Philip Neri were canonized on the same day, the Italians went around saying "Today the pope canonized  three Spaniards and a saint."  Apparently that opinion is still quite prevalent.  (Then again, I didn't notice a lot of St. Philip Neri statues, either.)

Here's the irony of it all:  I would have been happy with a medal.  Instead, I'm going to end up with a work of art that will be worthy of its subject, who evidently heard the prayers and directed us all to the right merchants (who were more like friends by the time we left) and the right artists.  I have a theory about this.  I think there's enough Spanish pride left in St. Ignatius to throw a jab at the Italians.  "Put your little row of Padre Pio's up against this."

Okay, so maybe that's just my attitude.  Either way, the nuns' prayers were answered. 

And my "unimportant" saint is going to get the respect he so richly deserves.

The gorgeous pictures on this page are from:


(A site whose webmaster, Juan V.C., is apparently gloriously unaware that St. Ignatius doesn't merit artistic representation, gracias a Dios.)

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