Non-Canonical Catholic Saints in Northeast Brazil
Last update: 20/03/2020
For a long time in the Northeast, the devotion of the people to various non-canonical saints can be observed. Thus, individuals channel their faith into the supernatural powers of these saints, and through them, seek to achieve healing for illnesses, the resolution of financial and/or affective problems, and others.
According to Benjamin (2003), such devotions “have been little studied in the field of anthropology, folklore, social psychology, the sciences of religion and communication. However, it is known that the practice involves psychosocial and communication processes of major importance in Latin American societies.”
A few decades ago, before the modernisation of mass media, non-canonical saints could only be propagated through oral history. Such saints and their respective miracles, however, are becoming more and more widespread, according to more recent research in the area of folklore.
It is known that after the occurrence of graces or miracles, devotees usually leave for these saints some objects that symbolically represent the requests they have made. In other words, along with their requests and prayers, the faithful seek to materialise their personal counterparts in return for what has been achieved. These objects that are deposited in sanctuaries, cemeteries, domestic oratories or places of pilgrimage are called ex-votos [offerings]. According to Cascudo (1974):
The ex-voto is an informant voice of collective culture, in time and space as legitimate and precious as an archaeological paraphernalia. It is worth much more than a collection of skulls, with their respective and serious sorting measurements. It is one of the most impressive and authentic documents of popular mentality, from the Neolithic to today. And always contemporary, true and faithful.
Among the non-canonical Catholic saints belonging to Northeast devotion, some of the best known are the following: Fr Ibiapina, Dom Vital, St Longinus, Friar Damião, Girl-With-No-Name and Father Cícero.
It is said that Longinus was the name of the Roman centurion who pierced Jesus’ heart with his spear. Because he was blind, he did not notice the blood spattered in his eyes. When this happened, a real miracle occurred: Longinus immediately saw again. From there, they say that he converted to Christianity, became known as St Longinus – the saint of lost objects – and his day became 15 March.
When someone loses an object, then, it is believed that to find it, it is enough to say: “St Longinus, St Longinus, if I find what I have lost, I will jump three times, whistle three times and shouts three times.” They say that Longinus had lost one of his legs in battle, and for this reason he wanted to see people jumping (as he naturally did in life) after they had attained their grace.
His real name was José Antônio Maria. He was born in Ceará on 5 August 1806, and his surname Ibiapina came in honour of the town where he lived. There, José Antônio Maria first was a law judge and the chief of police. In making the choice of religious life and becoming a priest, his apostolate would be distinguished by the encouragement of education. In this sense, he sparked beliefs in the people of the semi-arid region in an attempt to keep them away from blunderbussers and superstition.
Father Ibiapina made many pilgrimages, built more than twenty buildings – called “charity houses” – gathered and educated thousands of needy orphans to work in the private sector, baptised and married a large contingent of people in the states of Pernambuco, Paraíba, Rio Grande do Norte, Ceará and Piauí, in short, fought hard for his Christian ideals in the Northeast. The priest died on 19 January 1883, at the Casa de Caridade Santa Fé [Holy Faith Charity House] in Paraíba.
His full name was Vital Maria Gonçalves de Oliveira. He was born on 27 November 1844, on a sugar plantation in Pernambuco. The future priest first studied at the Seminary of Olinda, and later travelled to Paris, where he attended the Saint Sulpice Seminary. It was there that he decided to become a Capuchin, a priest belonging to the Franciscan order.
The Capuchin priest was arrested and persecuted, having fought against Freemasonry. He would enter the Franciscan Convent of Perpignan and then the Seminary of Toulouse, where his ordination took place on 2 August 1868. At the end of that same year, Dom Vital would return to Brazil, going to the Franciscan Convent in São Paulo, where he would teach.
In March of 1872, by indication of the Government of the Empire of Brazil, Dom Vital was consecrated bishop. However, Pope Pius IX was slow to accept him because he was only 28 years old. Faced with Rome’s hesitation, Dom Vital wrote a letter to the Pope asking for his resignation and confirming his desire to remain only as a simple priest. Perceiving all the detachment of the Capuchin, the Pope soon decided to nominate him, which occurred on 24 May 1872, the date on which Dom Vital became bishop of Olinda and Recife.
The son of humble and devout peasants, Pio Giannotti was born in Bozzano, a village in the city of Massarosa, Italy, on 5 November 1898. Demonstrating a priestly inclination, he began his religious studies at the age of twelve at the Seraphic School of Camigliano. Years later, he entered the Order of the Capuchins at the Convent of Vila Basílica, and upon receiving his habit, chose for himself the name of Damião [Damian].
In 1917, Friar Damião was summoned by the Army Military Forces to serve on the front lines of World War I along with other Capuchin priests, and after the end of the war, he would remain for three more years camped in the region of Zarra on the border of Italy. The experience of the carnage produced by the Great War would leave deep and bitter memories for the rest of his life.
In 1931, Friar Damião was summoned by his superiors to make a choice: to remain in Italy and be a teacher, or to travel to Brazil and become a missionary. He followed the voice in his heart and decided on his mission to evangelise, and days later, set off for Recife. Here, he would definitely adopt the name of Friar Damião, with the designation Bozzano referring to his native land.
Friar Damião did baptisms and collective marriages, gave sermons and heard confessions. Leading a procession through the streets and roads, in search of the most distant and needy communities, he began his pilgrimage at four o’clock in the morning, waking everyone with songs, prayers and the ringing of a bell. Due to his constant preaching in the interior of the country, he was called the wanderer of God.
It was the custom of listening to the faithful that gave him great personal prestige. So through his dedication to his neighbour, he would win the admiration of the Catholic population. In his missions and pilgrimages, Friar Damião gathered thousands of faithful and pilgrims, who travelled long journeys on foot, or travelled on trucks, in order to attend their religious actions. He was also the only preacher who visited the Northeast on a Franciscan mission.
For all this work, the Friar would receive various medals and decorations, and even the title of honorary citizen in 27 Brazilian cities. In cordel literature, Friar Damião was a source of inspiration for troubadours and writers who would create hundreds of pamphlets narrating his missionary life, his miracles and his immense popular prestige.
However, the lack of personal care during his intense missionary life had a negative impact on the health of the missionary: he had developed a progressive deformation caused by problems of kyphosis (hunchback) and scoliosis, which would cause him difficulty speaking and breathing. On the other hand, as a young man, he suffered from erysipelas and a certain peripheral cardiovascular insufficiency, problems that would only be aggravated by his long pilgrimages. In spite of all health problems, Friar Damião de Bozzano lived quite a long time: he died on 31 May 1997 at the Hospital Real Português in Recife, at the age of 98.
The Girl-Without-Name is a non-canonical Catholic saint in the category of “innocent victims”. According to records, in the early 1980s, a girl about 10 years old was found dead, with signs of having been raped, on Pina beach in Recife. Since the family never showed up to claim her body at the Legal Medical Institute (IML), the child was buried as an indigent in the Santo Amaro Cemetery, and her tomb became known as the Girl-With-No-Name. To this day, this tomb remains one of the most visited in the cemetery, and many devotees, believing in the miraculous powers of that Girl, place their prayers and ex-votos on it.
The most famous and popular of the non-canonical Catholic saints in Northeast Brazil is undoubtedly Father Cícero Romão Batista. He was born in Crato, Ceará, on 24 March 1844, and was ordained a chaplain in 1870, when Juazeiro do Norte was still called Tabuleiro Grande, and in its village there were only 32 huts of straw and mud, as well as a little church under the invocation of Our Lady of Sorrows. Father Cícero was not only devoted to worship: he taught how to till the earth, he treated the diseases of the people, he took care of screw-worm in cattle, and he taught the people of Ceará to work with different materials, like leather, straw, clay and fibre.
One day, the Blessed Maria de Araújo made the host that Father Cicero put in her mouth bleed. From this episode, the miraculous event was spread, causing the pilgrimages to Juazeiro do Norte to see the Lord’s chosen up close to never end. With the arrival of so many people, the city grew a lot. Alongside the existing male occupations came shoemakers, tinkers, saddlers, blacksmiths; and next to the female ones appeared lace makers, spinners, hatters and potters.
A Commission of Inquiry was then formed to ascertain the facts. But when they called the Blessed Maria and administered a host to her, it no longer bled. Therefore, the religious judged what had happened as a great mistake, the chaplain was forbidden to talk about miracles and to attend to the pilgrims. However, as the pilgrimages continued, the religious superiors made another decision: they forbade Father Cícero from carrying out his ecclesiastical functions, which remained in force for more than two decades.
On 20 July 1934, when the priest died at the age of 90, more than 70,000 people attended his burial. From that day onwards, on the 20th of every month, the faithful gather around the chapel of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, where were laid the mortal remains of that charismatic, loving, patient, hospitable, modest and enterprising priest.
And in Juazeiro do Norte, in an area of 100 square metres, a great monument was erected in honour of Father Cícero. Along with the pedestal, the monument stands 25 metres high. The statue itself, however, is 17 metres high, 7 metres in diameter, and weighs 357 tons. Juazeiro do Norte receives hundreds of thousands of pilgrims arriving by bus, car and truck, or even on foot.
on-canonical Catholic saints, although not recognised by the Vatican, continue to attract the attention of the people, who attribute to them the power to perform miracles and place faith and hope in them.
After the miracles occur, the devotees usually leave offerings to them, in cemeteries, domestic oratories, sanctuaries or places of pilgrimage. Such objects are symbolically associated with the requests that are made. Public markets, on the other hand, have been selling various objects related to non-canonical saints, among which can be found cordel literature, ribbons, bracelets, chains and ex-votos.
As long as they retain the power to attract people, non-canonical saints will continue to occupy an important place in the popular imagination. Thus, there is no need for the Vatican to canonise them: they have long been canonised by the Brazilian people.
Recife, 9 May 2006.
Translated by Peter Leamy, December 2016.
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SÃO LONGUINHO. Disponível em:<www.orações.com.br/index.php?pg=slonguinho> Acesso em: 25 maio 2004.
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Source: VAINSENCHER, Semira Adler; Lóssio, Rúbia. Santos Católicos Não-Canônicos no Nordeste do Brasil. Pesquisa Escolar Online, Fundação Joaquim Nabuco, Recife. Disponível em: <https://pesquisaescolar.fundaj.gov.br/en/>. Acesso em: dia mês ano. Ex: 6 ago. 2009