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Venerable Petroc, Patron-Saint of Cornwall

Venerable Petroc, Patron-Saint of Cornwall

Commemorated: June 4/17

Cornwall, the peninsula in the south-west of England and one of 48 English counties, was in ancient times a part of the Celtic kingdom of Dumnonia, which comprised territories of the present-day counties of Cornwall, Devon and part of Somerset and Dorset. The Gospel was brought to Cornwall in the fifth century or even earlier, and monastic life began there in 475. Cornwall became known as “the land of saints”. Indeed, between the fifth and seventh centuries Cornwall produced so many ascetics, hermits, abbots, missionaries, holy bishops and kings, that nearly each town and village in the region has its own patron-saint!

Christian life and the monastic tradition of Cornwall were similar to those of Wales and Brittany and many ascetic customs were indeed derived from the Desert Fathers of Egypt. Today  veneration for them continues and many churches and holy wells are dedicated to them.

  The most venerated saint in Cornwall, who is considered to be one of the main enlighteners of Dumnonia, is St Petroc, who together with the Archangel Michael and St Piran, has for many years been the patron-saint of Cornwall. Petroc was born in the second half of the fifth century in south Wales and was a son of a king of Glamorgan. After the death of his father, Petroc refused to share power with his brothers and decided to dedicate all his life to the service of God. The saint went to study in Ireland, where he spent 20 years. There Petroc became so experienced that he instructed other ascetics. From Ireland Petroc sailed back to Cornwall where he was very active as a missionary. He first settled at the mouth of the River Camel at a place called Trebetherick and soon founded nearby the monastery of Padstow which was to become the most famous in Cornwall.

After Petroc’s death the place was for a long time known as Petrocstowe, i.e. “St Petroc’s place”. With the help of local people Petroc organised there a large community with a school, infirmary, library, a farm and many cells for brethren. After 30 years of unceasing labours in Padstow, Petroc founded another monastic centre with a chapel and mill at Little Petherick just a few miles south of his first monastery, originally amid dense woods. More and more local inhabitants came to love Petroc and on listening to his sermons numerous pagans embraced Christianity. Such was his zeal that he converted King Constantine of Cornwall to Christ. The latter, who had an unholy life before then, himself became a zealous preacher and later abdicated and undertook missionary work in Scotland, where he eventually became a martyr.

After some time at Little Petherick, Petroc made a pilgrimage to Rome, then to the Holy Land, and even spent seven years on an island in the Indian Ocean! Petroc also visited Brittany more than once; there he preached, and dozens of places bear his name and numerous churches are dedicated to him there. After returning to Cornwall, Petroc lived for a long while as a hermit on the granite moorland of Bodmin Moor, devoting all his time to prayer. Petroc built a cell on the river bank for himself and on the top of the hill nearby he later built a monastery for his 12 disciples (the site was chosen very wisely, with running water, a pool, streams, fertile land and a valley nearby). With time the number of disciples increased; they followed their spiritual father everywhere and tried to follow his example in monastic life. Bodmin too was destined to grow into a very large monastery, as famous as Padstow. Petroc laboured energetically in many parts of Devon (where 17 churches are dedicated to him, in comparison with only five in Cornwall) as well as on Bardsey Island in Wales, where he founded many churches. He also travelled to Somerset in England and to Cardigan and Pembrokeshire in Wales and preached there. Throughout his life the saint had a deep love for the Holy Scriptures; wherever he went, he always healed the sick and worked many miracles. The solitary life in seclusion was dear to his heart. Like other Celtic saints, Petroc had a very close connection with nature, especially with wild animals. Petroc even had tame wolves among his companions. On stained glass windows Petroc is often depicted with a deer, because he particularly loved and protected these animals, saving them from hunters.

   An early manuscript describes Petroc as “handsome, courteous in speech, prudent, modest, burning with unceasing love, always ready for all good works for the Church.” Petroc often visited the monasteries and churches that he had founded, being an exemplary and tireless pastor despite his extremely old age. He reposed during one such journey at a place called Treravel  in c.564. The saint was buried at Padstow, which became the main centre for his veneration. Due to the activity of his disciples veneration for Petroc grew. St Petroc’s church, dating back to the 13th-14th centuries, stands on the site of his monastery in Padstow to this day. Among the relics there are two ancient crosses. In 981, the Monastery of Padstow was ravaged by the Vikings and the monks had to move to Bodmin, taking the relics of their patron-saint with them. From then on Bodmin became the second most important centre for his veneration. Later it became a diocese, and the major town of Cornwall. Today Bodmin is situated in central Cornwall, its name meaning “a dwelling of monks”. The monastery, founded there by Petroc, continued to exist after the Norman Conquest.

   Today Bodmin is a great centre of pilgrimage: its former Abbey Church of St Petroc, rebuilt in Norman times, still welcomes pilgrims. It is the largest parish church in the whole of Cornwall (46 metres long and  20 metres wide). After the translation of the relics of St Petroc together with his staff and bell to Bodmin, they were greatly venerated until the Reformation when the relics of Petroc disappeared (they were probably buried in a safe place) while his reliquary was for a while lost. But in the 19th century this unique shrine was discovered absolutely safe near Bodmin church, and it has been displayed inside this church as a great symbol of Cornwall to this day.

  In medieval times, monks of Bodmin produced two famous “Gospels of Bodmin” which are now both kept at the British Museum. The saint is much venerated in Cornwall, Devon, Wales, Brittany. A number of settlements of former Dumnonia still bear the name of St Petroc - for example Petrockstowe and Newton St Petrock (Devon). The official flag of the county of Devon has since 2006 been called, “St Petroc’s flag”.

  It can be said that from ancient times Cornwall was an important “producer” of tin and saints in Britain. This region is famous for its old Celtic legends and tales. It has many resort towns, ancient castles, lakes, forests, abandoned mines, early monuments. Picturesque landscapes of Cornwall attracted many painters, such as William Turner. Cornwall residents are called “the Cornish”, they cherish their native traditions, including the Cornish language.

(c) Dmitry Lapa

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