According to the Golden Legend (translated into English by William Caxton in 1483 as The Lives of the Saints), St. Roch/Rocke was born in the 14th century into a noble family in the city of Montpelier. His parents had prayed for an heir, and when their son was born, he had a small cross on his left shoulder, “a token that he should be acceptable and beloved of God”; the cross grew as he grew. Even as a suckling infant, Roch fasted, and he began doing works of penance at the age of five. When he was nineteen, having buried both his parents, he gave all his worldly goods to the poor and undertook a pilgrimage to Rome. This was a time of plague, and Roch stopped at a town called Aquapendens (Water-hanging), where he cured all the victims of the pestilence both in hospital and throughout the village. He continued on his pilgrimage for an entire year, healing victims of the plague in Cesena, in Rome, and throughout the realm. Even at his death, he was crying out to God that “all good Christian men which reverently prayed in the name of Jesu to the blessed Rocke might be delivered surely from the stroke of pestilence.”
In 1867, a yellow-fever epidemic visited the city of New Orleans, Louisiana. Father Peter Leonard Thevis and his parishioners at Holy Trinity Catholic Church prayed to St. Roch for deliverance from this new pestilence. They promised to build a shrine to St. Roch if they were spared. Although 40,000 people in New Orleans died from the epidemic, Holy Trinity lost not a single parishioner. In keeping with their promise, they built St. Roch Chapel and Campo Santo (an above-ground cemetery), dedicated on the feast day of St. Roch, August 16, 1876.
Over the ensuing generations, faithful people in New Orleans have been praying to St. Roch for healing. And they have brought to his shrine their ex votos, offerings of gratitude for miracles received.
I had the solemn and humbling experience of visiting that shrine several years ago. The tiny room, paint peeling from the walls, is packed with objects of prayer and thanksgiving. There are feet and hands, eyes, hearts, and a brain, notes of gratitude and supplication, leg braces and false teeth. There are plastic flowers and Mardi Gras beads. But these seemingly grisly details fail to convey the spirit of the place.
I don’t know if St. Roch healed people suffering from the plague. I don’t know whether the parishioners of Holy Trinity in New Orleans escaped the ravages of yellow fever. Nor do I know if those people who hung their braces on the walls of this room were actually cured of polio. What I do know is that those people who left their offerings had faith. In humility, they prayed for relief from pain or disease or suffering, and they placed the relics of their gratitude perhaps as gifts for the saint who interceded on their behalf. But they were also gifts to me–strange tokens of a simple faith that have created a sacred space for all who visit with humble hearts.
For further reading:
Stephanie Bilinsky, “Ex Votos, Shrine of St. Roch, New Orleans”
Ella Morton, “Honor the Healing Powers of St. Ruch by Leaving Him Your Leg”
Eve Troeh, “‘I Left My Leg in St. Roch Cemetery’: A Narratively New Orleans Feature”