“Why Don’t You Come on Over, Valerie?”
How Thibodaux’s cathedral obtained its patroness
An early Christian martyr, Valeria of Milan is patroness of Thibodaux; a town called Seregno in Lombardy, Italy; and all those seeking protection from storms and floods—a group which realistically includes everyone in Thibodaux and its environs. Valeria has the fragmentary biography common among ancient figures, especially women: she is the wife and mother of named saints, and after their executions she was either beaten to death with clubs or died from ill treatment in prison. This happened under Nero or Marcus Aurelius, in or near Milan or Ravenna. Compounding the biographical difficulties, Valeria of Milan is occasionally confused (or conflated) with other martyrs with similar names and stories, including Valerie of Limoges. Her feast, shared with her husband St. Vitalis, is celebrated on April 28, but seems to have been swept up in the purge of improbable saints carried out by Pope Paul VI in 1969. However, as anyone with a St. Christopher medal knows, an ex cathedra decision on the existence of a given saint doesn’t necessarily affect popular affection for or devotion to that figure.
Valeria of Milan is patroness of Thibodaux; a town called Seregno in Lombardy, Italy; and all those seeking protection from storms and floods—a group which realistically includes everyone in Thibodaux and its environs.
Valeria’s relic arrived in Thibodaux in 1868 through the efforts of St. Joseph’s pastor, Charles Menard. For many of the Catholic faithful, relics—physical remains of a holy person or something that has come into physical contact with such remains—offer an opportunity for special devotion and spiritual connection to a revered figure. A relic will often rest within a church’s altar or be displayed nearby. When Menard went to Rome on pilgrimage in 1867, he was determined to return with a relic for his parish. Accompanied by the then Archbishop of New Orleans, Jean-Marie Odin, Menard obtained an audience with Cardinal Patrizi Naro, who held two relics. The cardinal was persuaded to part with St. Valeria’s, and Menard returned to Louisiana with a patroness for his flock.
A grand ceremony was held to install St. Valeria at St. Joseph’s on her next feast day, April 28, 1868. A fully refurbished building, complete with repaired organ and a new set of Stations of the Cross, welcomed a crowd that easily overflowed the church. After a High Mass with sermons in French and English, the relic, now set within a wax effigy that itself rested in an ornate reliquary of oak, glass, and gilded copper, was ceremonially escorted to the church and installed on its platform in the sanctuary. The saint had reached her new home, where she remains to this day. In the intervening 155 years, she has given her name to schools and organizations in the parish, narrowly been rescued from the 1916 fire that consumed most of the church, and, one may hope, interceded with the Almighty for the people of Thibodaux and all those who live in a flood zone.
Chris Turner-Neal is the senior managing editor of 64 Parishes. Both his namesake saint and the saint on whose feast he was born, Catherine of Alexandria, join Valeria in her exile from the official Roman calendar.