In ancient Rome, February 14th was a holiday to honor Juno – the Queen of the Roman Gods and Goddesses and the Goddess of women and marriage. The following day, February 15th, began the Festival of Lupercalia when young boys would draw the name of a young girl from a jar to be his partner for the festival. Sometimes the pairing had a lasting effect and led to marriage. During the unpopular campaigns of the anti-Christian Emperor Claudius II, Rome needed more men to join the army. Claudius believed that one reason that men didn’t join was that they did not want to leave their loved ones so he cancelled all marriages. But one Christian priest named Valentine protected the sacrament of marriage and performed weddings in secret. For his actions Valentine was apprehended and dragged before the Prefect of Rome who condemned him to be beaten to death with clubs and to have his head cut off.
At the time he was apprehended, he had been teaching a young blind girl about the faith. On the eve of his death, he wrote a last note to her, knowing his death was imminent. He urged her to stay close to God, and he signed it “From Your Valentine.” His sentence was carried out the next day, February 14, 269 A.D., near a gate that was later named Porta Valentini in his memory. When Julia opened the note, she discovered a yellow crocus inside. As she looked down upon the brilliant color of the crocus her eyesight was restored. Valentine was buried at what is now the Church of Praxedes in Rome, near the cemetery of St Hippolytus. It is said that Julia planted a pink-blossomed almond tree near his grave. Today, the almond tree remains a symbol of love and friendship.
In 496, Pope Gelasius I named February 14 as Saint Valentine’s Day. Throughout the centuries there have been various basilicas, churches and monasteries built over the site of his grave. In the early 1800s as one such work was taking place, the remains of St. Valentine were discovered along with a small vessel of his blood and some other relics. In 1835, an Irish Carmelite by the name of Father John Spratt was visiting Rome. He was well known for his skill as a preacher and for his work among the poor and destitute in Dublin’s Liberties area. He had also built a new church to Our Lady of Mount Carmel at Whitefriar Street. While in Rome, he was asked to preach and the elite of Rome flocked to hear him. He received many tokens of esteem from the hierarchy of the Church and one such was from Pope Gregory XVI (1831-1846), who gave him a reliquary containing the remains of Saint Valentine.
On November 10, 1836, the reliquary arrived in Dublin with a letter from Cardinal Odescalchi confirming its authenticity. It was brought in solemn procession to the Whitefriar Street Church where it was received by Archbishop Murray of Dublin. With the death of Fr. Spratt, interest in the relics died away and they went into storage. During a major renovation in the church in the 1950s/60s they were returned to prominence with an altar and shrine constructed to house them and enable their veneration. A statue was carved by Irene Broe depicting the saint in the red vestments of a martyr and holding a crocus in his hand. Today, the Shrine is visited year round by betrothed couples who ask the saint to bless their lives together. The feast day of the saint on February 14 brings many couples to a Mass that includes a blessing of rings for those about to be married. On that day, the Reliquary is removed from beneath the side-altar and placed before the high altar to be venerated at all the Masses.
The shrine to St Valentine is on the right side of the church and the casket sits beneath the marble altar in a niche protected by an ornate iron and glass gate. Above the altar stands the life-sized statue of the saint in a marble alcove. The casket is wooden and on top is the papal coat of arms of Gregory XVI along with two large gold plates which have the letter of Cardinal Odescalchi inscribed in English upon them. Between these two plates and beneath the papal crest is a smaller plate with the inscription: This shrine contains the sacred body of Saint Valentinus the Martyr, together with a small vessel tinged with his blood. These are contained within a small wooden box, covered in painted paper, tied with a red silk ribbon and sealed with wax seals. This container is inside the casket which is seen beneath the altar. The outer casket has only been opened to verify that the contents are intact. The inner box has never been opened nor the seals broken to disturb the patron saint of lovers who sleeps in Ireland. This church also sells Valentine's Day cards, and those purchased there can be said to be the genuine article!
Read about more Irish connections to Valentine's Day at our Grá XOXO headquarters page.