Saint Patrick gets all the glory on March 17th - but did you know that this holiday is also the feast day of a lesser-known saint? We're talking about Saint Gertrude of Nivelles, aka the patron saint of cats.
At least that is how some refer to her, even though this has never been officially confirmed by the Roman Catholic Church. Gertrude seems to have been made into the Cat Lady of the Catholic church by devout followers. So, how did this Cat Lady status come to be?
St. Gertrude of Nivelles was a Benedictine abbess from Southern Belgium. She and her mother set up a monastery, where she became known for her devotion to scholarly and charitable works, and for taking care of orphans, widows, and pilgrims. Due to her devout lifestyle, which consisted of constant fasting and keeping vigil, her health declined and she died at the age of 33 on March 17th, in the year 659.
National Library of the Netherlands via Europeana - Public Domain
She was venerated as a Saint immediately after her death. In her. iconography, she became associated with, strangely enough, mice and rats. These mice were medieval depictions of the souls supposedly trapped in Purgatory, for which Gertrude was known to pray. St. Gertrude was always depicted with mice at her feet.
If you had a rat problem in 1822? Saint Gertrude was the one you asked to help chase them away. It was said that the water from her abbey’s well would keep away mice and other rodents.
It's likely this connection of "keeping mice away" that led Catholics (and Cat-holics) to associate her with cats instead off mice. Cats, after all, cats are nature's pest control.
Interestingly enough, St. Gertrude's status as the Cat Lady of the Catholic Church seems relatively new. The first idea seems to have originated in 1981, 1300 years after she lived. It's thought that the first publication to establish a link between Gertrude and cats was Metropolitan Cats, a catalog issued by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
However, there is no one definitive starting point for when St. Gertrude became the unofficially "official" Patron Saint of Cats. And. even though St. Gertrude hasn't been. officially recognized as the patron saint of cats, patron saints are often recognized through popular acclaim rather than through official declaration.