Saint Benedict Joseph Labre, Confessor
"The Saint of the Forty Hours"

Benedict Joseph Labre was born 26 March 1748 at Amettes, near Boulogne, the son and eldest child of a shopkeeper. After a private education with an uncle, the parish priest at Erin (who died heroically, ministering to, and himself infected by the victims of a cholera epidemic), he tried his vocation unsuccessfully with a number of strict monastic communities: Carthusians (Val-Sainte-Aldegonde, Neuville), Trappists (La Trappe, twice), and Cistercians (Sept-Fonts). His modern namesake, the Capuchin Father Benedict Groeschel, counts eleven attempts at monastic life!

By 1770, when he was twenty-two, it was clear that Benedict Joseph had no vocation to any religious community, and thenceforth he lived as a destitute pilgrim -- walking to shrines all over Europe. His only possessions, besides the single set of clothes he wore, were two rosaries, and three books: a New Testament, a Breviary, and The Imitation of Christ.

He settled permanently in Rome in 1774 (except for an annual pilgrimage to the Shrine of the Holy House at Loreto), sleeping at night in the Colosseum, and spending his days in the churches of Rome, especially those where the Forty Hours' Devotion was being observed. Santa Maria dei Monti became his favorite Roman church, where he was devoted to a fresco of the Madonna and Child with Saints Stephen, Lawrence, Augustine and Francis. Toward the end of his life, when he had grown severely ill, he did accept shelter sometimes at a hospice for poor men.

By Holy Week of 1783 he was near death, and on Wednesday he collapsed just outside Santa Maria dei Monti after attending Mass. A passerby, a local butcher, picked him up off the street and carried Benedict Joseph to his own nearby home, where, that evening at about eight o'clock, 16 April 1783, Benedict Joseph died after receiving Extreme Unction, aged thirty-five. So great was the crowd thronging his funeral that troops had to be called in to maintain public order.

Within a few months of his death, more than 130 miracles ascribed to the Saint had been carefully recorded. That year, G. L. Marconi, a priest who had been his confessor, published a biography. Benedict Joseph Labre was canonized by Pope Leo XIII, 8 December 1881.

Part of the butcher's house where he died (near Santa Maria dei Monti) was converted into a chapel with an altar, two cupboards containing the scanty relics he left, and a life-size recumbent statue of the Saint, marking the spot where he died, over which hangs a painting of the Madonna. He was buried beneath an altar in a chapel of Santa Maria dei Monti, where there is another life-size marble effigy. The death mask that was made before his burial is extant. Also preserved is one portrait made during his life. While the saint was in an ecstasy before an image of our Lady, he was painted by Antonio Cavallucci, and this portrait hangs in the National Gallery, Rome (Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica).

[Hypertext links are provided above for historical, theological, and liturgical references to the on-line Catholic Encyclopedia, edited by Mr Kevin Knight.]

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