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
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.
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
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
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,
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
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
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,
"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.
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
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
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
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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