11 September 2019

Saint Anne and Saint Esther,
fact, fiction or secret role
models for a secret people

The former Chapel of Saint Anne (right) and the Sexton Chapel (left) were amalgamated to form the consistorial court in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

I spent much of yesterday [10 September 2019] in Limerick, at a meeting of the chapter in Saint Mary’s Cathedral in the morning, and at a diocesan working group in the afternoon.

It was interesting to hear in the cathedral later in the day about proposals for the former Chapel of Saint Anne and the Sexton Chapel on the south side of the cathedral.

These chapels together onceserved as the Consistorial Court, and the dividing walls between the two chapels had been removed by the 19th century. Today, they form one space and the area that was once Saint Anne’s Chapel accommodates the welcome desk and the cathedral shop.

An icon of Saint Anne with her child, the Virgin Mary, with her child, the Christ Child, in the Church of Saint Eleftherios and Saint Anna in Corfu (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

In my sermon at the Mothers’ Union service in Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, on Monday evening, I shared the old joke beloved by theology students about Saint Anne as ‘Holy Annie, God’s Grannie,’ alongside more serious reflections of the good modelling of parenting Saint Anne could have provided the Virgin Mary.

I illustrated this with an icon of Saint Anne, the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child that I saw a week earlier in Corfu in the Church of Saint Eleftherios and Saint Anna.

In his book, Dedicated to Saint Anne (2008), Duncan Scarlett counted 29 churches and chapels within the Church of Ireland that are dedicated to Saint Anne, including Saint Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast, Saint Anne’s Church on Dawson Street, Dublin, and Saint Anne’s Church, Killanne, Co Wexford.

A shrine of Saint Anne in the former Jewish quarter of Porto (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

In Porto earlier this year, I heard how Saint Anne was one of two saints, alongside Saint Esther, who was popular among the conversos or anusim, the crypto-Jews who had been forced to convert to Christianity in Portugal and Spain during the Inquisition.

Saint Anne was a popular figure among the conversos because, it was said, she had died before the birth of Christ so had never converted to Christianity yet was revered as a saint. When conversos were forced to place a shrine outside their homes as a sign of their commitment to Christianity, Saint Anne was often the saint of choice.

Of course, as Duncan Scarlett pointed out, Saint Anne and Saint Joachim are totally fictitious saints, constructed by the early Church to fill a perceived gap in the Biblical narrative of the Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Their names come only from New Testament apocrypha, and writings such as the Gospel of James, written sometime between 150 and 200. The story bears a similarity to that of the birth of Samuel, whose mother Hannah – etymologically the same name as Anne – had also been childless.

The Scroll of Esther in a synagogue in Prague (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Saint Esterica, who became popular in converso families from Portugal and Spain, was modelled on Queen Esther of Persia. She hid her Judaism when she married King Ahasuerus, and is said to have been a vegetarian to avoid eating non-kosher meat. She seemed to be fully assimilated, yet she never forgot who she really was.

When Ferdinand and Isabella established the Spanish Inquisition in 1478, many Jews converted to Catholicism outwardly. Inwardly, they kept practicing Judaism in secret, becoming anusim, conversos, or crypto-Jews.

Queen Esther was an inspiration for the anusim because she remembered her true but hidden Jewish identity while integrating into wider society.

Although Queen Esther was never canonised, the anusim transformed her into Saint Esther or Santa Esterica, and they continued to celebrated Purim by reinventing it as ‘the Festival of Saint Esther.’

When the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, many Jews and conversos escaped to Portugal, taking their traditions with them. But a similar expulsion order was issued in Portugal in 1497. Many Spanish and Portuguese anusim then brought the traditions of Saint Esther to Mexico and other parts of the New World.

The Festival of Saint Esther included the three-day Fast of Queen Esther and the Feast of Saint Esther, when women fasted and then lit devotional candles in honour of Saint Esther, and when mothers and daughters cooked a banquet together, passing on family recipes that transmitted the traditions of kashrut or kosher food.

In crypto-Jewish homes, Queen Esther was represented in icons, statues and devotional paintings of Saint Esther, depicted wearing a crown adorned with myrtle and holding a sceptre decorated with a pomegranate, a tradition that continues to this day among some families in New Mexico.

Saint Anne’s feastday is celebrated in many parts of the Church on 26 July.

Saint Anne’s Church on Dawson Street, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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