On the Feast Day

On January 29, 2017 · 2 Comments

Recently I highlighted a couple of places named for holy figures because they were discovered on those particular saints’ feast days. Those included Saint Martin in Southernmost Bangladesh and various Christmas designations discovered on December 25. Many of the European nations with strong seafaring traditions participated. The Spanish, Portuguese, French and English all "discovered" distant lands and used saints as inspiration for place names. Only locations found and named on actual feast days interested me for this exercise. I wondered how many I could find. Well, I found a lot. I don’t pretend to include an exhaustive list although I think I recorded several of the most popular ones.

Here are a few presented in chronological order by feast day.

Saint Helena of Constantinople; May 21


St. Helena Island (NASA, International Space Station Science, 5/7/09)
St. Helena Island. Photo by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center on Flickr (cc)

Saint Helena of Constantinople earned reverence primarily because she gave birth to Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor of the Roman empire. She influenced the son who in turn allowed Christianity to flourish without persecution across a massive geographic area. That right there probably should have been enough. However, legends needed to be created and stories needed to be told to further accentuate her sainthood. As the tale went, she traveled to Jerusalem where she supposedly discovered the true cross. Actually the stories said she found all three crosses used in the crucifixion of Jesus and the two thieves executed with him. A miracle revealed Jesus’ specific cross, so they said.

A remote island in the South Atlantic, way out in the ocean all by itself between Brazil and Africa, took her name. This place was so far in the middle of nowhere that the British exiled Napoleon Bonaparte there in 1815 for the remainder of his life so he couldn’t cause any more trouble. Today St. Helena (map) forms part of a British Overseas Territory, Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha.

Conventional wisdom noted for the longest time that João da Nova — sailing on behalf of the Portuguese — discovered and named St. Helena on her feast day, May 21, 1502. Recent research seemed to cast doubt on that claim, however. It may have been mathematically impossible. Still, many sources continued to make the argument so I kept it on the list.


Saint John the Baptist; June 24


St John's, Newfoundland
St John's, Newfoundland. Photo by Robert Ciavarro on Flickr (cc)

I felt I probably didn’t need to provide an in-depth introduction to John the Baptist. He baptized Jesus and served as an immediate forerunner and influence. Naturally several faiths including Christianity and Islam considered him a prophet. His feast day became June 24 based on passages from the Gospel of Luke (specifically Luke 1:36 and 1:561:57). This established John’s birthday as six months before Jesus, so a simple subtraction from Christmas led to the selection of June 24.

John Cabot, an Italian explorer sailing under the English flag, arrived at Newfoundland during his 1497 voyage. He sailed into a harbor on June 24 and named it for John the Baptist. The city of St. John’s later formed there (map). Twelve Mile Circle "explored" St. Johns back in 2010 in St. John’s at Long Last. Today the province of Newfoundland and Labrador celebrates Discovery Day on the Monday closest to June 24.

Portuguese explorers first recorded the St. John River in Liberia on June 24 sometime in the 15th Century. Also the Spanish explorer Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón did the same thing at a river in South Carolina on June 24, 1520. He named the river Jordan to honor the spot where St. John baptized Jesus. Later, English settlers changed the name to the Santee River to recognize a local tribe of native inhabitants.


Saint Augustine of Hippo; August 28


St. Augustine
St. Augustine. My own photo.

Saint Augustine, one of the early Church Fathers greatly influenced Christianity through his theology and philosophy. The Hippo part came from an area he served as bishop, now in modern Algeria. He became the posthumous namesake and primary influence of the Augustinians, and his teachings greatly influenced Martin Luther and the Lutheran Church. St. Augustine died on August 28, 430, so August 28 became his annual feast day.

Spain grew concerned about French incursions on Florida and sent conquistador Pedro Menéndez de Avilés to the New World to protect its colonial claims. He spotted land on August 28, 1565, a date that coincided with St. Augustine’s feast day. In recognition, he named his settlement St. Augustine (map). I decided to feature this location because I went there a couple of years ago. Also the name of a local shop amused me: The Hyppo Gormet Ice Pops, in playful honor of St. Augustine of Hippo.


Saint Ursula; October 21


Virgin Islands 2009
Virgin Islands 2009. Photo by Mike Buedel on Flickr (cc)

Saint Ursula might have been my favorite. Well, maybe it could have been the 11,000 virgins. A couple of legends existed. In the more common one, the princess Ursula along with ten ladies in waiting — each attended by a thousand maidens — went on a pilgrimage to Rome sometime around the year 451. They arrived successfully and did whatever pious things 11,011 virtuous women would do when visiting the Pope. On the way back, however, vicious pagan Huns captured them near Cologne. Ursula refused to marry the Hun leader so he ordered all of them slaughtered. Scant evidence of such a massive carnage ever existed so modern church historians took it all with a grain of salt. October 21 became her feast day although the Roman Catholic Church removed the event from its General Roman Calendar in 1970.

Christopher Columbus, on his second voyage, encountered and named a Caribbean archipelago on October 21, 1493: Santa Úrsula y las Once Mil Vírgenes. Later cartographers shortened it down to the Virgin Islands (map). Something similar happened on October 21, 1520. Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan discovered a straight at the tip of South America that he named for himself. The cape at the end of continental South America, however, became Cabo Virgenes (Cape Virgins).

There were plenty of other places discovered on feast days. Those involved more obscure places so I’ll stop writing now.

On January 29, 2017 · 2 Comments

2 Responses to “On the Feast Day”

  1. Fritz Keppler says:

    Ursula of course means little she-bear, thus a common nickname for women so named in Germany is Bärchen, which means the same thing.

  2. Gary says:

    There is a St. Johns County here in Florida, and St. Augustine is the county seat of it. I am sure most people know where the city of St. Augustine is, but it is roughly about 40 miles south of Jacksonville and about 50 miles north of Daytona Beach.

    I guess St. John isn’t the only saint here, as the state also has a St. Lucie County (where Fort Pierce and Port St. Lucie is). That is roughly about 50 miles north of West Palm Beach, and about 150 miles south of Daytona Beach.

    My wife and I have been to St. Augustine many times, as it is about an hour and a half to two hours from my house in the Orlando area.

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