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Great Dominicans: St Hyacinth

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Saint Hyacinth was born around 1185 to a noble family and was one of the younger sons of Count Eustace, a renowned warrior. He received an excellent initial education at the Cathedral school in Krakow. He undertook his higher studies in Paris and Bologna, as well as at Krakow and, like the founder of the Order he was to join, initially became a Cathedral Canon.

It was said by his contemporaries that no priest was more punctual or exact in their recitation of the divine office. He regularly visited hospitals where the sick found him a sympathetic comforter. He was also a friend to the poor and distributed his income amongst them. According to all accounts it seems that not only was he content as a Canon, but was also already living a life of great virtue and holiness. Nonetheless, whilst studying in Bologna he had heard St Dominic preach and met some of the Friars of the nascent order, and it seems this left a mark on him and posed a question he would resolve some years later.

Again, like St Dominic, it was a trip at the behest of his Bishop that would change his life’s path. His uncle, Bishop Ivo, had been elected Archbishop of the significant Polish diocese of Gniesen. However, this news did not fill him with elation and he decided to travel to Rome to personally petition the Pope to excuse him from this office, taking two of his nephews with him, one of whom was Hyacinth.

St Dominic was in Rome at the time, where he had been undertaking the task of restoring regular discipline in several of the convents of nuns in Rome. Thus providentially the paths of St Dominic and St Hyacinth would cross once more and St Hyacinth once more attended one of St Dominic’s Masses, along with his uncle. Bishop Ivo was so impressed with St Dominic that he asked him to give him some friars to take back to Poland.

However, St Dominic was unable to comply with this request, having recently dispersed all his available men to different parts of Europe; but, being a man of vision, St Dominic did not simply decline, but proposed that the Bishop give him some of his own men to train up and send to Poland when they were ready. His uncle did not have to look farther than his nephews and both of them along with a further man, Herman the Teutonic, offered their service to St Dominic.

Thus already in middle age, St Hyacinth returned to the life of a novice and all the associated hardships, giving up all that he had enjoyed as Cathedral Canon. Unlike St Dominic, he would enjoy a long life in the Order, reaching nearly forty years’ profession; however, accounts of his life show that, like St Dominic, he would often spend whole nights keeping vigil in the Church and yet would not stint in his work by day.

Eventually, after receiving the habit at the hands of St Dominic in Rome, and on completion of further studies in Bologna, he began to make his way back to Poland with four other recent recruits to the Order (two of whom had accompanied him with Bishop Ivo to Rome in the first place).

In the true fashion of an itinerant mendicant friar, he did not view the journey back to Poland as a simple question of A to B, but preached to great effect along the way. He was able to establish a Priory, at Friesach in Carinthia, and people it with men attracted to membership of the Order by the quality of his preaching and his life. This was the first German foundation, and it was not the last foundation that St Hyacinth would make.

St Hyacinth was well received in Poland also and founded communities at Sandomir, Krakow, and at Plocko on the Vistula in Moravia. He extended his missionary work through Prussia, Pomerania, and Lithuania; then crossing the Baltic Sea he preached in Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. It was these apostolic travels that earned Hyacinth the title "The Apostle of the North". However, his travels and missions did not end here. He came into Lower or Red Russia, establishing a community at Lemberg and at Haletz on the Mester; proceeded into Muscovy, and founded a Priory at Dieff, and came as far as the shores of the Black Sea. Because of his evangelizing, multitudes were converted, and churches and priories were built in numerous locations.

The Priory he founded in Krakow continues to thrive to this day and the community there is consistently amongst the largest in the entire of the Order. In recent years Oxford has been fortunate to host several Polish Dominicans whilst they undertake their studies in theology. The Priory Church has a chapel dedicated to St Hyacinth which houses his relics and this is one of the places that the Dominican Pilgrimage Group to World Youth Day will be visiting next year (for more details see here


It was also here in the Krakow Priory where, worn out by his constant labours and vast journeys,  St Hyacinth would spend the last few months of his life. On the Feast of Saint Dominic in 1257, he fell sick with a fever that was to lead to his death. On the eve of the Feast of the Assumption, he was warned of his coming death. Though gravely ill he attended Mass on the feast itself and was anointed at the altar, dying later the same day.

He was canonized in 1594 by Pope Clement VIII and his feast day is celebrated on August 17th.

O God, who didst make Blessed Hyacinth, thy confessor, glorious amongst the people of diverse nations for the holiness of his life and the glory of his miracles, grant that, by his example, we may amend our lives, and be defended by his help in all adversities. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Top image; St Hyacinth in Bernini's Collonade, St Peter's Square

Toby Lees O.P.

Br Toby Lees O.P. Fr Toby Lees is assistant priest at Our Lady of the Rosary and St Dominic's, London.  |  toby.lees@english.op.org


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