AN inquiry from a reader in Catterick Village has raised some interesting questions about patron saints. This has arisen due to a sentence in a novel which refers to a patron saint for hens. My correspondent wonders if indeed hens have a patron saint.

The answer is “yes,” except that the saint in question is also the patron saint of all birds, including poultry and geese. Not only that, he is the patron saint of Switzerland and as well as a Swiss city which is named in his honour, i.e. St Gall, otherwise known as Gallen or Gallus.

References to the city include both Gall and Gallen. Known locally as Sankt Gallen, it has a population of around 74,500 and lies in the north-eastern part of Switzerland in a valley some 700 metres (2,300ft) above sea level. It is one of the highest cities in Switzerland where, not surprisingly, it receives heavy snowfalls in winter.

St Gallen, however, was an Irishman. Born around 550, he later studied at Bangor Abbey which was renowned throughout Europe as a centre of Christian learning. One of the students was St Columbanus (Columban) whom Gallen befriended, and, in 589, they embarked on a mission from Ireland to the Continent to spread the Christian faith.

Their first attempt was in France where Columban was forced into exile by local leaders who were strongly opposed to Christianity, and so Columban and Gallen fled to Switzerland. Columban decided to visit Italy on a mission but Gallen fell ill and remained behind, being treated in the Swiss town of Arbon.

After treatment, he decided to remain and his reputation as a preacher drew supporters to him, but he opted for life as a hermit in a forest near Lake Constance. Later, 12 other monks joined him and although he yearned for a quiet life, his stature as a preacher and tutor increased across Switzerland. His standing led to him being offered the post of bishop of the vacant see of Constance but he refused to leave his life of solitude and prayer. He had no desire to get involved with the politics of being a bishop. He died in Arbon around 646-650, aged 95.

Following his death, a small church was built and this quickly developed into the Abbey of St Gall, even though St Gall never inhabited the abbey or served as its abbot. One of the main attractions today is the Abbey of St Gall, now capital of the canton of St Gallen in Switzerland. The abbey is now a World Heritage Site with its renowned library that dates to the 9th century and contains some rare books.

Not surprisingly, the image of this holy man has produced a few stories that probably have no true foundation. Legend has a habit of obscuring the truth in some cases.

One tale is that the future bride of King Sigebert II of Switzerland was suddenly taken ill with a demon. The king had granted land at Arbon for the construction of a monastery by Gall but when Gall was confronted with the seriously ill girl called Fridiburga, he managed to rid her of the problem and she survived. The king was delighted and the monastery was built, but was Gall’s action really an act that we might explain as first aid?

Perhaps the most persistent tale of St Gall involved a wild bear. The story is that he was travelling through a dense forest and settled down one evening to warm his hands by a fire he had created. A bear burst from the trees intent on attacking Gall, but the priest stood his ground and rebuked the bear; it slunk back into the shelter of the trees.

The amazing thing is that it then set about gathering fallen wood for Gall’s fire and brought it to him, joining him beside the fire. It remained with him for the rest of his life, often helping to gather wood from the forests. Images of St Gall often depict him with a bear as a companion and it is claimed he shared a cave with the bear for the rest of his life. Surprisingly, he is not the patron saint of bears – that may fall on the shoulders of St Francis of Assisi, a patron saint of all animals.

However, there is a patroness of birds. She is St Mildburga, whose aunt, mother and sisters were all saints. Mildburga was abbess of a convent in Wenlock, Shropshire, from 670 to 722.

She is credited with numerous miracles, one of which involved her horse’s hoof striking a rock which caused a spring to appear from it. In her role as patroness of birds, it is said she could persuade wild birds to leave valuable crops alone until after harvest time.

St Gall is venerated in both the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. His feast day is October 16.

Many saints preserve us

Research into patron saints, supported by the book Saints Preserve Us by Sean Kelly and Rosemary Rogers (Robson Books 1995) suggests that every one of us has a patron saint. This might relate to our name, our date of birth, even our astrological sign or some other factor of our life. The idea is that one’s patron saint watches over and protects us during life, and in return we recall his or her efforts in celebrations that mark their respective feast days.

There are also saints in other aspects of life. I was in Romanby near Northallerton recently and noted a housing estate whose roads are named after saints. In Britain, about 60 towns, locations or villages bear a name prefixed by Saint – St Albans, St Andrews, St David’s, St Ives, St Kilda, St Mawgen and St Neots are just a few examples and, despite the Reformation, many British churches remain dedicated to a saint. Nations have patron saints too, e.g. Augustine of England, David of Wales, Patrick of Ireland and Andrew of Scotland.

There are doubts about St George – England celebrates St George’s Day on April 23 but some believe he is little more than a mythical figure who fought a dragon. Nonetheless, he is a patron saint of England, Portugal and Germany, but also of horses, the cavalry, equestrians, farmers, boy scouts, knights, archers and armourers. He is also invoked against the plague, leprosy and syphilis. However, he may have been a real Palestinian soldier who was martyred during the persecution of Diocletian.

The role of patron saints is almost never-ending – there are patron saints of highways, bridges, caravans, happy meetings, fireworks, car lovers, health spas and new wine, not to mention savings banks, ships, waitresses and refugees. And we writers also have two patron saints – Francis de Sales and John the Divine. There is even a patron saint of popes – St Gregory the Great (540-604) who sent Augustine to Canterbury to earn himself the title of Apostle of England and who brought wonderful music to our churches.