It seemed like fate to a Tarzana businessman when he picked up a new book titled “Saints” and it fell open to a page that described one St. Gregory the Wonderworker as the patron saint to protect people against earthquakes. No other saint was listed as having such powers.
Richard Nelson, president of the Collector’s Mint, saw a way to provide quake-skittish Californians with some needed protection. He also saw commercial possibilities.
So Nelson began advertising St. Gregory the Wonderworker pocket medallions and silver pendants for $9.95 and $19.95, respectively.
Little did he know that Los Angeles-area Catholics have had a patron saint for earthquakes for more than 130 years, though his job performance seems open to question.
St. Emydius, the archdiocese’s heavenly hedge against quakes, has an honored place in its Downtown cathedral and has a Lynwood parish named after him.
But has the City of Angels been looking to the wrong saint?
Asked about this possible usurper, Msgr. Francis Weber, archivist for the archdiocese and resident priest at the San Fernando Mission, said it was his impression that St. Gregory specialized in more than earthquakes.
Indeed, a multivolume reference work, popularly known as “Butler’s Lives of the Saints,” notes that St. Gregory the Wonderworker was also invoked in southern Italy and Sicily in times of flooding.
“When you have cancer you see a specialist, and St. Emydius was specially known as the patron saint against earthquakes,” Weber said.
Legend has it that Emydius, also spelled Emygdius, was a bishop who was beheaded during Roman persecution in A.D. 303.
Weber said that Emydius’ name was invoked for protection against earthquakes for centuries in Italy and elsewhere in Europe. Franciscan friars evidently continued that tradition during the mission days in California, he said.
After the disastrous Ft. Tejon earthquake on Jan. 9, 1857, Bishop Thaddeus Amat petitioned the Vatican for permission to celebrate St. Emydius’ feast day, normally Aug. 9, on the Sunday after the anniversary of the temblor instead. The Vatican said yes, and in 1863, also granted the request of local priests to name Emydius as a patron of what was then known as the Monterey-Los Angeles diocese.
Although St. Vibiana is the patroness of the archdiocese and Our Lady of the Angels (Mary) is patroness of the city of Los Angeles, Emydius remains co-patron of the archdiocese, along with St. Patrick of Irish fame.
Emydius and Patrick are depicted in life-size statues in lofty niches in the altar area of St. Vibiana Cathedral. The Whittier earthquake in October, 1987, caused the statues to swivel in their places and they ended up facing one another, said David Sutton, a cathedral employee.
“It was rather humorous,” Sutton said. “St. Patrick was a little worse for wear and had almost slipped off his pedestal.”
The statues were later attached to the walls.
Perhaps through no fault of his own, however, Emydius has slipped into obscurity over the years.
Msgr. Royale Vadakin, pastor of St. Vibiana from 1984 to 1990, said he never saw any reverential cult for St. Emydius. When he identified Emydius’ status during tours of the cathedral, “I didn’t see people’s eyes light up,” Vadakin said.
Likewise, Father Donal O’Connor, pastor of St. Emydius parish in Lynwood for 20 years, said he receives no inquiries about Emydius--despite the fact that the saint’s statue stands in front of the church.
“There’s not too much veneration of saints anymore,” O’Connor said. Besides that, “most of us regard earthquakes as natural phenomena,” the priest said. Lynwood has been relatively unaffected by recent quakes, but that is because of its location, he surmised.
Yet, if Gregory the Wonderworker gathers a following, Emydius is in a poor position to fight back. Reference books such as the Catholic Almanac do not list Emydius but they do include St. Gregory Thaumaturgus, his Latin name.
In addition, no St. Emydius medal or keepsake is found in standard religious catalogues, said Nancy Hennelly, manager of the San Fernando Mission Gift Shop.
“I think people pray to saints just as much as ever, but they have their favorites, such as St. Joseph, St. Francis of Assisi and especially St. Jude, who is prayed to for ‘impossible’ causes.’ ”
In fact, that might make Jude the best generic candidate for trouble-prone Los Angeles.