Privilege and Penance
St. Hyacinth, the “Apostle of the North,” was born Jacek Odrowąż in 1185 at the castle of Lanka in Kamień Śląski, the Silesia region of Poland. The noble “Odrowąż” family often served the Catholic Church throughout the Middle Ages as knights, so his life of relative ease enables him to receive a quality education at home near Krakow, then further classical schooling at Prague and Paris. At Bologna, he earns the title of Doctor of Law and Divinity, and God confirms his priestly call. Despite his privileges, he likely sees his social position as an opportunity for service to God. Even as a young man, his concern for God’s favor drives him to practice many penances and mortifications.
An Early Dominican
He advances fairly quickly in the church. In 1219, he spends six months preparing for the northern nations around his native Poland, though his missionary work is “interrupted” by a timely trip. In 1220, he accompanies his uncle Ivo Konski, Bishop of Krakow, to Rome, where he meets St. Dominic. Along with some fellow novitiates, Jacek studies with Dominic in Rome and receives the habit of the Order of Preachers from Dominic himself, one of the first of the fledgling order. Afterward, he returns to Poland and becomes such a renowned preacher the first Dominican Order in Poland is founded by 1222.
His successes in Poland lead to successful missionary efforts in Moravia, Prussia, Pomerania, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Lithuania, Scotland, and even into Russia to the Black Sea (though some of these travels are doubtful and not in early accounts of St. Hyacinth’s life). Some accounts describe St. Hyacinth’s work in Russia as so successful he converts many Greek Orthodox Church members to Catholicism. After his time in Russia, St. Hyacinth purportedly travels and preaches throughout Tibet and northern China. Hyacinth and his travel companions found many convents throughout their travels.
Not a Prior but a Saint
After his travels, he returns to Poland for the rest of his service. On August 15, 1257, “Hyacinth fell ill with a fever of which he was never to recover. Hyacinth had lived a very ascetic life: often scourging himself, fasting, and sleeping on the bare floors of churches” (Fleming). “Hyacinth never served as provincial nor even a prior, but toiled as a simple friar, focusing on the internal and external missions facing the Polish Dominicans: to deepen their own faith, and to spread it through Poland” (“Saint Hyacinth”).
Pope Clement VIII canonizes Hyacinth on April 17, 1594, declaring his miracles too numerous to count, including raising fifty dead people to life and healing over seventy dying persons. Pope Innocent XI names him the patron saint of Lithuania in 1686. He is also considered the patron saint of those in danger of drowning, in part due to a legend in which a mother of a drowned boy asked Hyacinth for aid. He prayed and the boy returned to life. Hyacinth is also a patron saint of several cities in the Philippines. Since 1913, August 17 has been his memorial day. He is one of the featured 140 statues of saints around the colonnade of St. Peter’s Basilica.
The hyacinth flower, “hyacinth” means “purple” in Greek, is depicted at the foot of St. Hyacinth in the Marble Chapel. I could not track down any insights as to the two smaller images below him, the shields depicting an angel with two swords and an eagle with a crown. Nor could I learn why fire is coming out of his palm (if it is even fire).
Next to Hyacinth’s right foot is what appears to be a couple of sheaves of wheat. If so, these likely represent a legend involving crops and pierogi. As the story goes, Hyacinth was visiting the Polish village of Kościelec on July 13, 1238 when a hailstorm broke out and destroyed the crops. Hyacinth told them to pray and new crops arose the next day. In appreciation, the people of Kościelec made pierogi for him.
St. Hyacinth, dressed in his Dominican robes, is holding a ciborium (the metal cup designed to hold the “hosts” (effectively, the Catholic version of the bread for the Eucharist), as a companion to the chalice that holds the wine. He also holds a statue of Mary. When the Tartars attacked Kiev in 1240, Hyacinth grabbed the ciborium from the church. While walking out, a large alabaster statue of Mary called to him, asking him would he leave her behind at the mercy of her enemies. “How can I carry thee? The burden is too heavy,” he said with tears in his eyes. Mary responded, “Only try; my son will assist you to carry me without difficulty” (Weninger). Grabbing the 300-pound statue, Hyacinth is able to carry it in his opposite hand along with the ciborium. He and his fellow priests walk safely through Kiev. As they approach the Dnieper River, as shown in his portrait, Hyacinth is able to walk across the water to safety.
Fleming, Ken. “The Marble Chapel Saints.” No date. Emmaus Bible College. Unpublished pamphlet.
Mershman, Francis. “St. Hyacinth.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 7. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 25 Mar. 2020 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07591b.htm>.
“A Miracle of St. Hyacinth” by Ventura Salimbeni. https://www.christianiconography.info/Wikimedia%20Commons/hyacinthSalimbeni.html
“Saint Hyacinth“. CatholicSaints.Info. 10 November 2019. Web. 25 March 2020. http://catholicsaints.info/saint-hyacinth/
Weninger, DD, SJ, Father Francis Xavier. “Saint Hyacinth, Confessor”. Lives of the Saints, 1876. CatholicSaints.Info. 9 April 2018. Web. 25 March 2020. http://catholicsaints.info/weningers-lives-of-the-saints-saint-hyacinth-confessor/
Wikipedia contributors. “Hyacinth of Poland.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 24 Feb. 2020. Web. 25 Mar. 2020.
Christopher Rush graduated from Emmaus in 2003. After 15 years teaching high school in Virginia, he has returned to Emmaus and Dubuque to take over the English Department. His wife, Amy, is also an Emmaus graduate (2000). Amy is the principal of Tri-State Christian School here in Dubuque. They have two children, Julia and Ethan.