Not everybody who goes to Whitefriar Street church is Catholic, and not every Catholic who visits is a regular Mass-attender. There are a steady number of people who pass other interesting features of the church and head straight to the shrine of St. Valentine. They’re a mixed bunch of people, mostly young but older people too. Sometimes the older people are there to pray for younger family members, but not always. The shrine itself almost always has fresh flowers and lit candles.
Most people don’t seem to be aware that “Valentine’s Day” is Saint Valentine’s Day. Among those that are aware, few are aware that the mortal remains of Valentine are in a church just a few minutes walk off St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin.
Whitefriar Street church is one of the biggest and best known in Dublin. It belongs to the Carmelite community. The Carmelites have had a church in that area since the 13th Century. This can be seen in the name of the street – Whitefriar. This was the name given to the Carmelites when they first came to Ireland and England from the Holy Land when Christians were no longer welcome after the Fifth Crusade. The church was originally established in 1279, and the current building dates from 1825 – the eve of Catholic Emancipation.
The church has a long association with people who played a part in the Irish independence movement. Kevin O’Higgins was married there, and Kevin Boland’s funeral Mass took place there. The church was also a favorite of Eamon De Valera. To many others, however, the church is known as the last resting place of St. Valentine.
There was more than one early Christian saint named Valentine, but the facts and legends seem to have coalesced around Valentine of Rome in the middle of the 2nd century A.D. – the period of greatest persecution.
In ancient Rome, people honored the Roman goddess Juno in February. She was known as the goddess of women and marriage. A mid-February feast called Lupercalia was created in her honor. This feast began with young men picking the name of a woman at random from a jar and courting her. Sometimes, things would work out and the couple would be married. One of the features of the Roman Empire at this time – a feature that ultimately led to its decline – was constant warfare. Under Emperor Claudius, this tradition of pairing young men and women was discontinued. Young single men were preferred as soldiers, for they did not have as much to lose as married men. All marriages and engagements were cancelled by decree of Claudius. Valentine and other priests ignored this unjust law and continued to marry young Christian men and women. For this crime, Valentine was eventually taken away and killed. The earliest documents after the ending of persecution against Christians fixed Feburary 14th as the day Christians would remember Valentine.tion against Christians. This may account for why we don’t have as many records for this period as we have extant from earlier and later periods. We do know there were churches named after him and his feast day was fixed as February 14th. We’re not so sure about the legends of him being specifically arrested for performing the marriage ceremonies of Roman soldiers, or about his miraculous healing of a jailer’s daughter. Nonetheless, they are part of the tradition that grew up around his life.
Valentine’s feast day became associated with idealized romantic love 1,000 years after his death in the era of “courtly love.” His feast day was expropriated due to the belief that mid-February was the time when birds begin to mate. Chaucer wrote:
For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne's day
Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.
From that time forward, Valentine’s Day became more and more associated with romantic love, eventually developing into what we know today.
In the mid 1830s, Father John Spratt (a member of the Whitefriar Street Carmelite community) was invited to preach at the famous Jesuit church in Rome, the Gesu. While there his reputation as a preacher spread throughout the city. He received many gifts, which he spent caring for the poor of Dublin. The most unique gift he received was from the pope of the day, Gregory XVI. The gift was the remains of St. Valentine. Every time a church is built and a new altar is installed, the bones of a martyr were placed in the altar to remind people that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross frees us from sin, and moreover that many of His early followers gave their own lives for believing and sharing this with others. The remains of St. Valentine weren’t just a macabre gift from Pope Gregory; rather, they were a way of reminding the people of the new Whitefriar Street church that, in the words of the early Christian Tertullian, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”
The current altar containing the bones of Valentine (seen in the photograph to the left) was put in place in the 1950s. Over the altar is a statue of Valentine dressed as a priest and wearing red vestments – red being the color used to remind people of those who shed their blood for their Christian faith. In the statue’s right hand is a crocus. The crocus was used from early times as a symbol of the saint. It is one of the earliest blossoming flowers after the winter, and so it became associated with St Valentine’s Day … the middle of February.
So, here’s a tip: If you want to do something a bit unusual for your loved one this St. Valentine’s Day, send him or her a few crocus’ rather than the more common roses.
Read about more Irish connections to Valentine's Day at our Grá XOXO headquarters page.