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Next Thursday, 9 October (2008), is the feast day of the patron saint of pharmacists, St John Leonardi.
Born in Lucca, Tuscany, in 1541, John worked as a pharmacist’s apprentice while studying for the priesthood. He formed the Order of the Clerks Regular of the Mother of God, a congregation of diocesan priests, in 1574.
This group, although later confirmed by Pope Clement VIII, was unpopular for political reasons, and John was exiled from Lucca for most of the rest of his life.
In 1579 John formed the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine and published a compendium of Christian doctrine that remained in use until the 19th century. He died at the age of 68 from a disease caught while tending plague victims.
John was canonised by Pope Pius XI in 1938 but not proclaimed patron saint of pharmacists until 2006. A five-metre statue of him resides at the Vatican in an outside lateral niche of St Peter’s Basilica, having been blessed by Pope Benedict XVI in April of this year.
But pharmacists are honoured with the patronage of more than one saint. Among those with whom John Leonardi shares his role are the twins and early Christian martyrs, Sts Cosmas and Damian. The twins practised medicine for free, leading many to the Christian faith.
Their most famous miraculous exploit was the grafting of a leg from a recently deceased Ethiopian to replace a patient’s ulcerated limb. This act was the subject of many paintings and illuminations.
Hospital pharmacists have their own patron saint in St Gemma Galgani, a 20th century mystic who predicted the foundation of a Passionist convent at Lucca. Her father was a poor pharmacist who continued to raise his eight children after his wife’s death and until his own.
In June 1899 Gemma was blessed with the stigmata of the hands and feet. She was also blessed with visions of her guardian angel and tormented with visions of Satan.
St Mary Magdalene is another of our patrons, but we share her patronage with a selection of less illustrious professions. These include glove makers, hairdressers and reformed prostitutes. St Mary Magdalene is also the patron of those who are ridiculed for their piety.
Patron saints are chosen from more than 4,500 saints recognised by the Roman Catholic Church as special protectors or guardians over areas of life. These areas can include occupations, illnesses, countries and causes.
Apologists, ear aches, impossible cases, lost keys, tax collectors and Uruguay all have their own patron saints.
Unlike many religious practices, patronage is inclusive. Serial killers, alcoholics and those falsely accused of cannibalism can all look to their own patron saints in their hours of need.
Even the really ugly have Sts Drogo and Germaine for support. St Drogo, who lived in the 12th century, had a cell built for him attached to the church so that he could protect people from his repulsive appearance.