The great Irish patron saint worked alongside and gained inspiration from several holy women of his era.
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It’s no coincidence that many great saints had a close friend and collaborator of the opposite sex. St. Francis and St. Clare, St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, St. Benedict and St. Scholastica … There are so many examples. God designed men and women to work together in a powerful way for the sake of the Kingdom.
The great St. Patrick was no exception. He worked alongside and gained inspiration from holy women of his era. On this feast of the great Irish patron saint, let’s learn about the women who inspired him.
1St. Darerca of Ireland
Did you know St. Patrick had a sister who is also a saint? I just learned this, and I don’t know about you, but my mind was blown. She was a wife and mother who raised a large family of faithful children.
While St. Patrick is often credited as single-handedly converting the entire nation of Ireland, he actually received some help from his own relatives. In addition to his nephew, Patrick was also accompanied by his sisters, who did what they could to help establish Christianity on the island.
It is said that Darerca became the mother of many children (some traditions say 17) and most of them were boys. These boys eventually became influential in establishing the Church in Ireland as they became bishops throughout the country.
2St. Brigid of Ireland
St. Brigid worked alongside St. Patrick to establish Christianity in Ireland. As an abbess, she held an important leadership role, and is often depicted holding a bishop’s staff.
Along with St. Patrick, St. Brigid of Kildare is known as a co-patron of Ireland, having been a close collaborator of the missionary bishop. She was highly influential in the early years of Christianity on the Emerald Isle and established many monasteries of religious women.
The Book of Armagh, a 9th-century Irish illuminated manuscript, describes the close unity of heart and mind between these great Irish saints:
Between St. Patrick and St. Brigid, the pillars of the Irish people, there was so great a friendship of charity that they had but one heart and one mind. Through him and through her Christ performed many great works.
3The enslaved women of Ireland
St. Patrick did not leave many writings, but in one of the two books of his that we have, he described the courageous witness of the enslaved women he met.
St. Patrick himself was “one of the earliest identifiable anti-slavery activists in western civilization,” which makes sense given that he was enslaved himself as a young man before he escaped and then returned to evangelize Ireland.
In his Confessio, he describes how he was “humbled every day by hunger and nakedness” during his six years tending cattle in the Irish wilderness. In particular, Patrick condemns and calls out the bondage of Irish women while taking note of their bravery and resilient spirit.
Although forbidden to practice their Christian faith, these brave women found ways to secretly practice their faith and keep up their spirits. Their names are lost to history, but we can assume they are great saints in Heaven.
St. Patrick found their witness inspiring. He wrote,
“But it is the women kept in slavery who suffer the most—and who keep their spirits up despite the menacing and terrorizing they must endure. The Lord gives grace to his many handmaids; and though they are forbidden to do so, they follow him with backbone.”
It’s always inspiring to see examples of men and women working together for the sake of the Kingdom — the spiritual friendship between holy men and women is “a divine invention.”