Has the City of Angels been looking to the wrong saint for protection against earthquakes?
The powers of St. Emydius, the Los Angeles Catholic Archdiocese’s official heavenly hedge against quakes, are being challenged.
Because of a new book on saints and the enterprise of a San Fernando Valley businessman, Emydius has a rival: St. Gregory the Wonderworker, a 3rd Century figure in church lore to whom Italians have looked for protection for centuries.
A St. Gregory the Wonderworker pocket medallion and a silver pendant are selling for $9.95 and $19.95, respectively.
“We believe that all Californians who live with the danger of earthquakes will find comfort in having the Patron Saint and Protector Against Earthquakes with them at all times,” according to a flyer from The Collector’s Mint in Tarzana.
The company’s president, Richard Nelson, who normally makes commemorative coins for collectors, discovered while browsing through Elizabeth Hallam’s “Saints,” a book that categorizes saints according to their areas of patronage, that only Gregory the Wonderworker was listed under earthquakes.
Not Catholic himself, Nelson decided nevertheless that such a keepsake was just what quake-skittish Californians needed.
Asked about this usurper, Msgr. Francis J. Weber, archivist for the archdiocese and resident priest at the San Fernando Mission, said it was his impression that St. Gregory was known for other roles as well.
Indeed, a multi-volume reference work popularly known as “Butler’s Lives of the Saints” notes that St. Gregory the Wonderworker was invoked in southern Italy and Sicily in times of flooding as well as earthquakes.
“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 AD 303.
Weber said Emydius’ name has been invoked for protection against earthquakes for centuries in Europe. Franciscan friars evidently continued that tradition during the mission days in California, he said.
Following the disastrous Fort Tejon earthquake on Jan. 9, 1857, Bishop Thaddeus Amat petitioned the Vatican for permission to celebrate St. Emydius’ feast day, normally on 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, a 3rd Century martyr, 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 placed into lofty niches in the altar area of St. Vibiana Cathedral in Los Angeles. The Whittier earthquake in October, 1987, caused the statues to swivel and end 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 later were attached to the walls to prevent them from falling.
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 when I said that,” 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 due to 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, who said she has no immediate plans to order the Gregory the Wonderworker medals.
“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.”
Making Jude perhaps the best generic candidate lately for trouble-prone Los Angeles.