Today is the feast day of St Faith and her companion martyrs. St Faith is one of those saints you have to be a bit doubtful about. The name itself suggests that she might be analogous to the Roman goddess Fides who was the personification of faith. Maybe St Faith is a saint in the same vein. Even the official line of the Catholic church is one of skepticism (and she tends now to be venerated as the embodiment of faith). Almost nothing is known about her life, and what is known is quite generic and often jumbled up with stories of other saints. Nonetheless, her veneration is quite deep and widespread, especially in Latin America where there are scores of parishes, towns, and provinces named for her using her Spanish name, Santa Fe. So let me see what I can disentangle from the “cloud of unknowing” and say something about traditions associated with her.
According to the medieval martyrologies, Faith was a young French woman (or girl) from Aquitaine, martyred under Dacian, procurator at Agen, during the persecutions of the emperor Diocletian, who was perhaps the most savagely anti-Christian of all the Roman emperors. Her legend recounts how she was arrested for being a Christian, and refused to make pagan sacrifices even under torture. In consequence she was burnt to death on a red-hot brazier. Anyone who showed sympathy for her was likewise martyred, hence her feast day includes her “companion martyrs.” Her death is sometimes said to have occurred in the year 287 or 290, sometimes in the early 4th century (the uncertainty adding to the doubt concerning her existence). She is listed under her medieval French name Sainte Foy, “Virgin and Martyr,” in the martyrologies.
During the 12th century, Faith’s veneration was fused with those of Caprasius and Alberta, both associated with Agen. Caprasius’ cult in turn was also fused with that of Primus and Felician, who are called Caprasius’ brothers. One legend states that during the persecutions of Christians by the prefect Dacian, Caprasius fled to Mont-Saint-Vincent, near Agen. He witnessed the execution of Faith from atop the hill. Caprasius was condemned to death, and was joined on his way to execution by Alberta, Faith’s sister (also identified as Caprasius’ mother), and two brothers, named Primus and Felician. All four were beheaded. All very confusing.
In the fifth century, Dulcitius, bishop of Agen, ordered the construction of a basilica dedicated to her, later restored in the 8th century and enlarged in the 15th. It was demolished in 1892 due to an urban planning effort at Agen. However, the center of her cult was not the basilica in Agen but the abbey church at Conques. In the ninth century her remains were stolen by a monk from Conques, who spent 10 years undercover in the abbey at Agen, and transferred to Conques.
Conques was along the pilgrimage route to Compostela. Her veneration then spread along the pilgrim routes on the Way of St James (see post 25 July) – and beyond, eventually reaching England, Italy, and the Spanish colonies.
The gilded reliquary at Conques (pictured) was described in Bernard of Angers’ Book of Miracles of Sainte Foi, around 1010. It was repeatedly adapted and enriched well into the nineteenth century. The head itself, made of a different gold from the body— which is fashioned of thin plates over a yew wood— has been tentatively identified as an imperial portrait of the later Roman Empire. Thomas Hoving, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, has alternately theorized that the life-size golden face is a portrait or death mask of Charlemagne. Some of her relics were moved to the monastery of Sant Cugat in Catalonia in 1365. However, the main reliquary can be seen in the Abbey at Conques. One of her arms was reportedly kept in a church in Glastonbury in England.
The nineteenth-century English Shakespearean scholar and antiquarian James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps reports this St Faith Day custom in England:
A charm-divination on the 6th of October, St. Faith’s day, is still in use in the North of England. A cake of flour, spring water, salt and sugar, is made by three girls, each having an equal hand in the composition. It is then baked in a Dutch oven, silence being strictly preserved, and turned thrice by each person. When it is well baked, it must be divided into three equal parts, and each girl must cut her share into nine pieces, drawing every piece through a wedding-ring which had been borrowed from a woman who has been married seven years. Each girl must eat her pieces of cake while she is undressing, and repeat the following verses:
O good St. Faith, be kind to-night,
And bring to me my heart’s delight;
Let me my future husband view,
And be my visions chaste and true.
All three must then get into one bed, with the ring suspended by a string to the head of the couch. They will then dream of their future husbands, or if perchance one of them is destined to lead apes, she will dream of wandering by herself over crags and mountains
I am given to doubt that this custom was at all widespread but this quote is now endlessly repeated as if it were. There are also general reports from various parts of Europe that it was traditional to bake simple cakes in honor of St Faith on this day. I can find no evidence that this is still done.
Saint Faith (Santa Fe) was a popular saint at the time of Spanish colonization of the New World, hence scores of towns and provinces bear the name Santa Fe. Here’s a sample gallery.
I lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for a year studying the dances of the Tewa, Tiwa, Towa, and Keres pueblos about 20 years ago. It was a wonderful time for me, and consequently I returned on several occasions. As much as anything I was drawn by the food which is a combination of puebloan and Spanish cuisines. One all time favorite of mine is green chile stew. Around this time of year the streets of Santa Fe are redolent of the smell of roasting green chiles. Residents buy their year’s supply in large sacks from farmers who bring them into town. They have large revolving roasting drums fired by propane jets in which the fresh chiles are roasted until the skins are blackened. Then they are taken home, laid out to cool, and the skins are stripped off.
Nothing could be sweeter than a warm freshly roasted New Mexico green chile wrapped in a flour tortilla. Cooking pots burst with green chile stew to make the most of the harvest. The rest are then frozen and stored for the year. You can sometimes get green chiles in markets outside of the southwest. If you do find them, char them over an open flame and scrape off the blackened skin before using them. Otherwise there are tinned varieties available. They are not as good, but they work. Regular bell peppers are not a good substitute. Some people make this with beef, but it really needs to be pork. In restaurants the stew comes with sopapillas (puffy fried bread). At the end of the meal you finish off with a sopapilla soaked in honey, conveniently supplied in squeeze bottles at each table.
© Tío Juan’s Green Chile Stew
1 ½ lbs pork butt, cubed
1 ½ cups diced onion
1 tbsp minced garlic
1 tbsp dried oregano
6 cups chicken broth
1 lb potatoes, peeled and diced (large chunks)
3 cups roasted, peeled, chopped green chile
olive oil (or vegetable oil) for frying
chopped cilantro, to taste and for garnish
Set the stock to simmer gently in a large stock pot with the garlic.
In a skillet sauté the onions in a little oil until translucent. Transfer to the stock.
Gently brown the pork in batches in the skillet, transferring each batch to the stock when browned.
Add half the chiles, oregano, and cilantro to taste, then simmer partly covered at least one hour. The pork should be very tender.
Add the potatoes and the rest of the chiles, and simmer uncovered until the potatoes are tender. The stock should be reduced and thick.
Serve in bowls with a garnish of cilantro.