26 July 2020

‘Holy Annie, God’s granny’
and the secret saints who
emerged at the Inquisition

A fresco of Saint Anne with her child, the Virgin Mary, with her child, the Christ Child, by the icon writer Alexandra Kaouki in a church in Rethymnon, Crete

Patrick Comerford

Today is the Feast of Saint Anne (26 July). It is a day celebrated in the Church of England in the calendar of Common Worship as ‘Anne and Joachim, Parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary,’ and in the US in the calendar of the Episcopal Church as ‘The Parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary,’ without naming them.

It is a feast that is not marked in the Calendar of the Church of Ireland. But, 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, Saint Anne’s Church, Cappoquin, Co Waterford, Saint Anne’s Church, Shandon, Cork, and Saint Anne’s Church, Killanne, Co Wexford.

There is also a Saint Anne’s Chapel in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, where the former Chapel of Saint Anne and the Sexton Chapel were amalgamated to form the consistorial court.

There is the old joke beloved by theology students that refers to Saint Anne as ‘Holy Annie, God’s Grannie.’

But, even as a child, I could be amused by the fact that the two parish churches in Cappoquin – Saint Anne’s (Church of Ireland) and Saint Mary’s (Roman Catholic) – were named after mother and daughter and stood side-by-side on the one triangle of land at the junction of Main Street and Mill Street, on sites donated by the Keane family, with Saint Anne’s on a slightly higher site.

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

In Porto last 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 and 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.

A similar tradition about Saint Anne has been recorded among the descendants of conversos or anusim from Spain and Portugal who settled in Naples, Sicily and other parts of Italy.

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 she 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 truly 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 celebrate 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.

A statue of Saint Anne and the Virgin Mary in Nicker Church, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Of course, as Duncan Scarlett pointed out, Saint Anne and Saint Joachim are totally fictitious saints too, 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.

Saint Anne’s Church, Cappoquin, Co Waterford … part of my childhood memories (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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