Several hundred people come to St Anthony of Padua, Forest Gate in east London every Tuesday evening to pray for the intercession of the church's namesake. The saint stands familiar in a side altar towards the back of the church, Christ child in one arm, lily in the other, tonsured and habited in Franciscan brown. Votive candles flicker in an overfull rack; a box fills with petitions throughout the day. All these are the normal external signs of the devotions to the 13th century saint—but there are other, more unusual, offerings at the famous Franciscan's feet. Among these the most common are gifts of bread but people also leave flowers, jewellery and all sorts of other gifts.
For at Forest Gate it is not just Catholics who come to pray St Anthony's novena on Tuesday evenings. In this ethnically diverse parish a number of different faiths come together in front of St Anthony on Tuesdays. Hindus make up the most predominant group of non-Catholic, first in the prayers, the petitions, Exposition and Benediction and then the veneration of the relic and a sermon. The cult of St Anthony, big in Catholic India thanks in part to the presence of Portuguese Franciscans in the 16th century, has also grown in popularity in Hindu communities.
"St Anthony is a very popular saint in India and Hindus will visit popular shrines in India and here." says Fr Stewart Foster, the archivist for Brentwood Diocese and a priest of the parish. "I think one of the reasons Tuesdays are so popular is that the Novena is not Mass, so everyone can fully take part. They can put in their petitions, pray in front of the Sacrament and kiss the relic.
"And it's not just the Hindus who leave gifts. People come from all over and are very generous. We have a St Anthony's box for those in need. The money does not go to the parish but directly to those in need."
At St Anthony's Shrine, Kaloor. in Cochin, Kerala, India, more than 25,000 people of different faiths attend the Tuesday novena. Certain strains of Hindu syncretism have adopted the saint in their devotions.
St Anthony's feast is this Friday, June 13. His statue can be found in most churches. looking down gently at those who ask for his intercession. With his widespread presence come a number of customs and legends, some stranger than others. As the patron saint of lost things, Portugal, pregnant and barren women and a miracle worker. his intercession is frequently called upon. Who has not prayed for his help in a moment of desperation, fumbling for missing keys, searching for lost glasses or other objects that have disappeared?
"Tengo a San Antonio, Puesto de cabeza.
Si no me encuentro novio, nada me interesa" ("I have St Anthony / placed on his head / if he doesn't fmd me boyfriend, nothing interests me") goes a Puerto Rican song which refers to the popular custom in Latin countries whereby single women place a statuette of the saint on its head as a form of blackmail. If the girl gets a suitor, the statue is returned to its normal upright position.
St Anthony's bread, which is charity for the poor either in the shape of bread that is blessed on his feast day and handed out or of donations from devotees, arose out of the practice of bribing the saint in return for his favour. The custom of giving alms as thanks for miracles or answered petitions is said to date to the 13th century when a Paduan child drowned in a barrel of water. The grieving mother promised to give the child's weight in grain to the poor if St Anthony restored it to life. Her prayers were answered and the custom took root. It accquired the name "St Anthony's bread" in 19th century Toulon, France where, Louise Bouffier, a local girl, promised loaves of bread in exchange for his help.
Among the miracles attributed to St Antony during his lifetime are getting a horse to kneel in front of the Blessed Sacrament. re-attaching a severed foot, and protecting his audiences from rain.
Born in Lisbon in 1195 to a wealthy family and baptised Ferdinand, St Anthony became a Canon Regular of St Augustine at the age of 15. During the 10 years he was with the Augustinians he gained the profound knowledge of scripture and theology for which he was later renowned. It was there, also, that he encountered the first Franciscan atartyrs who had been killed in Morocco and joined the Orders of the Friars Minor, taking the name Anthony.
After a humble , obscure life in a hermitage in Sicily, Anthony attended an ordination in Forli where he was forced to preach. It was here that his gift for speaking and erudition were first recognised. St Francis heard of his education and assigned him to teach the brethren theology. After St Francis's death, St Antony returned to Italy, preaching in Italian cities, most notably Padua, where he retired to the nearby Camposanpiero before taking ill and dying on June 13, 1231 in Vercelli at the age of 36. Pope Gregory IX canonised him in 1232 and he was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church in 1946. After his death, his cult grew as numerous miracles were attributed to him.
So while most Catholics think of him today as the man who finds their keys. in Forest Gate St Anthony can be credited with the miracle of ecumenism.