Rediscovering Saint Drogo of Sebourg

In the earliest edition of the Martyrologium Romanum approved by Pope Gregory XIII in 1584, as in every edition since, one finds a modest mention of “Saint Drogo, confessor” on the sixteenth day of April. Behind this humble reference stands a largely forgotten story that offers not only a fascinating window on rural and religious life in medieval Europe, but also an object lesson in Christian spiritual discipline and charity that challenges our contemporary perspective.

Drogo was born sometime in the first two decades of the twelfth century. His wealthy (perhaps noble) parents lived in the village of Epinoy, now part of Carvin in the extreme north of France near Flanders. His father died before Drogo was born. His mother suffered such complications in labor that it was necessary to deliver the baby by Caesarian section, and she died bringing her son into the world. The newborn, an orphan from birth, was left to the care of relatives and baptized Drogo (Druon in French).

When Drogo was about ten, he learned the circumstances of his mother’s death. A sensitive soul, Drogo was deeply touched by accounts of her suffering, and afterwards was often seen to weep bitterly for her. Indeed, in his innocent simplicity, young Drogo reproached himself for what seemed a grave offense, and implored God’s pardon with great contrition. Even as a boy he practiced fasting, abstinence and other austerities, and devoted himself to works of charity in expiation of his faults.

As Drogo approached manhood, he resolved to abandon his home and distribute his considerable inheritance to the poor. Whatever circumstances precipitated this sudden change, we may well imagine that Drogo was inspired by Christ’s exhortation to another troubled young man: “If thou wilt be perfect, go sell what thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come follow me” (Mt 19:21). Drogo kept for himself no more than the clothes on his back, and entrusting himself to Providence, he took to the open road, never to return to his birthplace.

After a time, Drogo’s wanderings brought him to the small village of Sebourg, some 35 miles from Epinoy. Now just on the French side of the modern Franco-Belgian frontier, Sebourg was in those days part of the County of Hainaut, an independent territory bordering on France. There, Drogo found employment tending sheep in the service of a pious, well-off peasant woman, a largely solitary occupation that suited his temperament and spiritual bent.

The humble austerity of shepherds’ lives belied the valuable role they played in twelfth-century European society. Sheep husbandry supplied wool to support a booming international textile trade and parchment to satisfy the demands of rising book production. Moreover, shepherds were skilled and knowledgeable laborers. A 1379 treatise by Jean de Brie, The True Order and Government of Shepherds and Shepherdesses, reveals that medieval shepherds mastered how to attend to the varying needs of the flock in each month of the year; to treat and prevent the illnesses and injuries to which sheep are prone; to predict the weather by the observation of wind, sky and wildlife; to recognize harmful and salutary plants; and to use expertly the various accoutrements of their art. De Brie’s treatise also reveals the sense of inherent dignity that medieval shepherds attached to their calling, which they saw affirmed throughout Scripture from the pleasing sacrifice of the first shepherd Abel to the honor that God bestowed on the shepherds outside Bethlehem.

Following Christ’s model, Drogo thus became a good shepherd. Indeed, he showed such natural aptitude that, despite his youth, he soon acquired a reputation as a master of his occupation and would tutor others in the lore of shepherdry.

Cherishing his simple life, Drogo passed much of his time in prayerful contemplation and gave to the poor most of what he received in wages or gifts. His humility, gentleness and generosity quickly earned the villagers’ admiration. A constant tradition has it that, while Drogo was out in the fields, tending his flock or deep in prayer, he could sometimes simultaneously be seen attending Mass in the village. This gave rise to a common saying that reportedly persisted to the twentieth century among the rural folk of that region, who, if charged with several onerous tasks, might protest, “I’m not Saint Drogo; I can’t ring the church bell for Mass and be in the procession!”

Drogo Embarks on Pilgrimages
After six years in Sebourg, Drogo felt called by God to take up the pilgrim’s staff. Setting off on foot like the Apostles before him, he traveled to Rome where he visited the tombs of Saints Peter and Paul, stopping along the way at many other renowned holy sites in France and Italy. During his journey, Drogo occasionally used his skills as a shepherd to support himself and instructed other shepherds he encountered.

Some accounts speculate that Drogo believed that only the pope himself could absolve him of his part in the death of his mother. Although he never did meet the pope, Drogo pursued these peregrinations for nine years and nine voyages to Rome, each time returning briefly to Sebourg. Drogo gladly suffered the hunger, thirst, harsh weather and other incommodities and dangers of pilgrimage in pursuit of holiness. However, these restless years took their toll, and the weary pilgrim eventually made his way back to Sebourg for the last time, having developed a debilitating and disfiguring hernia.

His wandering days behind him, Drogo resolved to live as a solitary, still detached from worldly things. The parishioners of Sebourg helped him to build a small anchorite’s cell adjoining the parish church. From there, Drogo could adore the Holy Eucharist and hear the divine offices through a small opening in the church wall. Still in his early thirties, Drogo shut himself within and vowed to remain there for the rest of his days.

Despite this solitary existence, Drogo never refused the people who sought his spiritual advice or the benefit of his prayers; those who visited his humble cell always left consoled and edified. Drogo now sustained himself on little more than barley bread and water; if it happened that a kind visitor brought him some other food or gift, Drogo would give it away to the poor, keeping only what was strictly necessary for subsistence. Over time, Drogo’s painful malady worsened, and he developed putrescent sores on his lower body. Even in the face of these trials, he never lost the gay and serene disposition for which he was known.

Early accounts of Drogo’s life are unanimous in relating an amazing event that occurred in his latter years, which further increased the reverence in which the local peasants held him. One day the parish church of Sebourg—probably a modest edifice of wood and thatch—caught fire. The alarm was raised, and the villagers came running only to find that the terrible blaze was beyond extinguishing and that Drogo’s adjoining cell was in peril. As the fourteenth-century Franciscan monk and chronicler Jacques de Guyse relates the episode, the villagers implored, “Drogo, man of God, come out lest you die, for your cell is engulfed in flames, and we cannot bring you aid!” Drogo called back, “I have made a vow to God, and I will fulfill it! If it pleases the Divine Goodness that I should escape the flames, His will be done!” Falling to his knees, Drogo remained in the conflagration and offered prayers of thanksgiving to the Almighty.

A short time later the fire expended itself, having reduced most of the church to ashes. The villagers found Drogo placidly at prayer amid the smoldering remains of his cell, completely unscathed. The people of Sebourg who witnessed this miracle, de Guyse tells us, recalled the Old Testament story of Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace, and exclaimed, “How great is the Savior’s mercy, to preserve a man from such a danger!” The villagers rebuilt the church and a new dwelling for Drogo on the same site, and he was soon able to resume his life of prayerful seclusion.

Another Miracle follows Drogo’s Death
Drogo died on the sixteenth of April in either 1186 or 1189, having attained a ripe old age for one whose earthly existence was marked by illness, hardship and self-abnegation. Upon learning of his death, Drogo’s kin from Epinoy claimed the body, wishing to return it to his birthplace. The parishioners of Sebourg acceded to the request in accordance with the custom of those days. The body was thus placed in a fine casket and set on an ox-drawn cart. Yet it appears that God intended Drogo to remain in his adoptive home. Reportedly, as the procession made its way out of Sebourg, the saint’s casket seemed to grow heavier and heavier. At last the cart reached a point at the boundary of the village where it could no longer advance at all, as though obstructed by a supernatural force.

In any event, the attempt to repatriate Drogo’s remains had to be abandoned. The body was brought back to Sebourg to general acclaim and interred in the village church with rustic pomp. The villagers erected a cross on the spot where the ox-cart had been obliged to stop, and although the cross itself has been replaced several times over the centuries, this simple monument still stands today in a field on the outskirts of Sebourg. Each year on Trinity Sunday, the modern-day villagers commemorate the event with a procession in which the saint’s reliquary chasse is borne from the church to St. Drogo’s Cross, preceded by the village children dressed as shepherds and shepherdesses.

Not long after Drogo’s death, accounts of miraculous healings attributed to his relics spread through the surrounding country and beyond, and a stream of sick pilgrims made their way to Sebourg. The miracles multiplied, and over time the crowds became so substantial, de Gruyse tells us, that it was difficult to approach the saint’s tomb.

By the time of his enrollment in the Martyrologium Romanum, Drogo had long been acclaimed a saint in his homeland by vox populi. In 1612, the archbishop of Cambrai ordered the formal elevation of Drogo’s relics at Sebourg. Confraternities dedicated to St. Drogo are active today in Sebourg and Carvin, and in Cambrai he is invoked at an annual “Shepherd’s Mass” at which sheep farmers and their lambs are blessed.

St. Drogo’s patronage has come to be associated with a variety of occupations and conditions. First, he is predictably a patron saint of shepherds and a protector of their flocks. Drogo is also a patron saint of expectant mothers, presumably due to his special sympathy and gratitude toward the mother he never knew. His physical malady has likewise made him a patron of those who suffer from hernias, kidney stones and other ailments of the abdomen, as well as of persons deemed physically unlovely.

Paton Saint of Coffeehouse Keepers?
Most notable in the contemporary popular culture of the English-speaking world, however, are the surprising identification of Drogo as the patron saint of coffeehouse-keepers and his association more generally with coffee. This might be dismissed as an apocryphal invention boosted by the coffeehouse boom of the past few decades, were it not historically attested. A Belgian almanac from 1860 shows that in Mons—just across the present-day Franco-Belgian border from Sebourg—Drogo had already been claimed by the city’s cafetiers (coffeehouse-keepers) as their patron.

Nevertheless, the origin of St. Drogo’s association with coffeehouses remains mysterious; coffee was not introduced into France and Belgium until the seventeenth century. Some have ventured, tongue in cheek, that harried baristas might fittingly invoke a saint reputed to possess the mystical gift of bilocation. A more plausible connection may reside in a minor detail from some biographical sources: during his years of reclusion, Drogo took no drink but warm water. Perhaps also, the early coffeehouse-keepers of Hainaut marveled at how the properties of the coffee bean are transformed by fire without being destroyed by it, and were reminded of Drogo’s miraculous survival of the destruction of the church at Sebourg.

At first blush, aspects of St. Drogo’s story can leave us perplexed. We struggle to find application in our own lives for facets of medieval asceticism that might appear today anachronistic or extreme. Consider, however, the unifying thread that runs through the three great chapters of St. Drogo’s adult life as shepherd, pilgrim and anchorite; namely, his progress in answer to the call to holiness in solitude. Henri Nouwen tells us in The Way of the Heart:

Solitude is the place of the great struggle and the great encounter—the struggle against the compulsions of the false self, and the encounter with the loving God who offers himself as the substance of the new self.

What does all of this mean for us in our daily life? Even when we are not called to the monastic life, or do not have the physical constitution to survive the rigors of the desert, we are still responsible for our own solitude.

For the Christian, solitude must not be conceived as a flight to privacy, nor yet as a retreat to replenish and restore the everyday self; it is less a turning away and inward than a turning toward and upward. In this light, the example of St. Drogo and other great ascetics of Catholic tradition is revealed, not as a forbidding prospect nor a paradoxically self-indulgent one, but as a transformative encounter.

The unusual circumstances of Drogo’s life led him to a spiritual condition of gratitude, penitence, and hope of salvation; properly directed, these form the basis of Christian spiritual life in every age. As you enjoy your daily coffee on this feast day, in this season that makes all things new, remember St. Drogo of Sebourg and seek the path to your own solitude.

Editor’s note: The image above is a detail from an illustration of St. Drogo by artist Daniel Mitsui.

By

Christian E. O'Connell is an attorney currently based in Washington, D.C. He previously spent a number of years in France practicing law, studying, and working in Catholic education.

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