Gerard was born in 1726 in Muro, a little town in Southern Italy. He was blessed with a mother, Benedetta, who showed him the overwhelming love of God which knows no bounds. He was happy because he was close to God.
Gerard was twelve years old when his father died and he became the family breadwinner. He was apprenticed to a local tailor and was bullied and beaten by the foreman. After four years apprenticeship, and just when he might set up as a tailor on his own, he announced he was going as a servant to work for the local Bishop of Lacedonia. He was advised by his friends not to take the job. However, the angry outbursts and endless nagging which prevented other servants from staying more than a few weeks were nothing to Gerard. He was able to turn his hand to anything and worked for the bishop for three years until he died. As long as Gerard believed he was doing the will of God he would accept anything. Whether he was being bullied at the tailors or taken for granted by the bishop didn’t matter; he saw suffering as part of his following of Christ. “His Lordship wished me well,” he would say. And already, Gerard was spending hours with Jesus present in the Blessed Sacrament, the sign of his crucified and risen Lord.
In 1745, aged 19, he returned to Muro where he established himself as a tailor in his own right. His business prospered but he didn’t make much money. He gave practically everything away. He would set aside what was needed for his mother and sisters and then give the rest to the poor or as Mass offerings for the souls in purgatory. There was no sudden startling conversion for Gerard. It was just a steady growth in the love of God. Then during Lent of 1747 he resolved to be as completely like Christ as it was possible to be. He undertook most severe penances and actually sought out humiliation, pretending to be mad and happy to be laughed at in the streets.
He wanted to serve God totally and applied to join the Capuchin friars but was not accepted. At the age of twenty-one he tried the life of a hermit. He so wanted to be like Christ that he jumped at the chance to take center stage for a Passion Play, a living tableau in Muro Cathedral.
With the Redemptorists
Then, in 1749, the Redemptorists came to Muro. There were fifteen missioners and they took the three parishes of the little town by storm. Gerard followed every detail of the mission and decided this was the life for him. He applied to join the mission team but Fr. Cafaro, the Superior, turned him down on account of his health. He so pestered the missioners that when they were leaving the town, Fr. Cafaro suggested to his family that he be locked in his room.
In an incident that has found an echo in the hearts of young people ever since, Gerard knotted the sheets off his bed and, climbing out of the window, followed the band of missioners. It needed a rigorous march of twelve miles for him to catch up with them. “Take me on, give me a try, then send me away if I’m no good,” said Gerard. Fr. Cafaro couldn’t do much about such persistence but give him a try. He sent Gerard to the Redemptorist community in Deliceto with a letter that read: “I’m sending you another Brother, who will be useless as far as work is concerned.”
Gerard fell absolutely and totally in love with the way of life Alphonsus, the founder of the Redemptorists, had mapped out. He was thrilled to find the love of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament was central and the love of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, was also considered essential.
He took his first vows on July 16, 1752 which he was delighted to learn was the feast of the Most Holy Redeemer as well as the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. From that day, except for a couple of visits to Naples, and his time in Caposele where he died, most of Gerard’s life was spent in the Redemptorist community of Iliceto.
The “useless” tag didn’t last long. Gerard was an excellent worker and during the next few years he was at different times, gardener, sacristan, tailor, porter, cook, carpenter, and clerk of works of the new buildings in Caposele. He learned fast — visiting the workshop of a woodcarver he soon became adept at carving crucifixes. He was a treasure in the community but he had only one ambition — to do the will of God in everything.
In 1754 his spiritual director asked him to write down what he longed for more than anything else. He wrote: “to love God much; always to be united with God; to do all things for the sake of God; to love everything for God’s sake; to suffer much for God. My only business is to do the will of God.”
The Great Trial
True sanctity must always be tested by the cross, and it was in 1754 that Gerard had to undergo a great trial, one that may well have merited for him the special power to assist mothers and their children. One of his works of zeal was that of encouraging and assisting girls who wanted to enter the convent. Often he would even secure the necessary dowry for some poor girl who could not otherwise be admitted into a religious order.
Neria Caggiano was one of the girls thus assisted by Gerard. However, she found convent life distasteful and within three weeks had returned home. To explain her action, Neria began to circulate falsehoods about the lives of the nuns, and when the good people of Muro refused to believe such stories about a convent recommended by Gerard, she determined to save her reputation by destroying the good name of her benefactor. Accordingly, in a letter to St. Alphonsus, the superior of Gerard, she accused the latter of sins of impurity with the young daughter of a family at whose house Gerard often stayed on his missionary journeys.
Gerard was called by St. Alphonsus to answer the accusation. Instead of defending himself, however, he remained silent, following the example of his divine Master. In the face of his silence, St. Alphonsus could do nothing but impose a severe penance on the young religious. Gerard was denied the privilege of receiving Holy Communion, and forbidden all contact with outsiders.
It was not easy for Gerard to give up his labors on behalf of souls, but this was a small penance compared with being deprived of Holy Communion. He felt this so keenly that he even asked to be freed from the privilege of serving Mass for fear that the vehemence of his desire to receive would make him seize the consecrated Host from the very hands of the priest at the altar.
Some time later Neria fell dangerously ill and wrote a letter to St. Alphonsus confessing that her charges against Gerard had been sheer fabrication and calumny. The saint was filled with joy by the news of the innocence of his son. But Gerard, who had not been depressed in the time of his trial, was not unduly elated in the hour of his vindication. In both cases he felt that the will of God had been fulfilled, and that was sufficient for him.
The Miracle Worker
Of few saints have there been so many wonderful events recorded as of St. Gerard. The process of his beatification and canonization reveals that his miracles were of the widest variety and profusion.
He frequently fell into ecstasy while meditating on God or his holy will, and at such times his body was seen raised several feet above the ground. There are authentic records to prove that on more than one occasion he was granted the unusual miracle of being seen and spoken to in two places at the same time.
Most of his miracles were performed in the service of others. Such extraordinary happenings as the following begin to seem commonplace when one reads his life. He restored life to a boy who had fallen from a high cliff; he blessed the scanty supply of wheat belonging to a poor family and it lasted until the next harvest; several times he multiplied the bread that he was distributing to the poor. One day he walked across the water to lead a boatload of fishermen through stormy waves to the safety of the shore. Many times Gerard told people of secret sins on their souls which they had been ashamed to confess, and brought them to penance and forgiveness.
His miraculous apostolate for mothers also began during his lifetime. Once, as he was leaving the home of his friends, the Pirofalo family, one of the daughters called after him that he had forgotten his handkerchief. In a moment of prophetic insight Gerard said: “Keep it. It will be useful to you some day.” The handkerchief was treasured as a precious souvenir of Gerard. Years later the girl to whom he had given it was in danger of death in childbirth. She remembered the words of Gerard, and called for the handkerchief. Almost immediately the danger passed and she delivered a healthy child. On another occasion the prayers of Gerard were asked by a mother when both she and her unborn child were in danger. Both she and the child came through the ordeal safely.
His Death and Glorification
Always frail in health, it was evident that Gerard was not to live long. In 1755, he was seized by violent hemorrhages and dysentery and his death was expected at any moment. However, he had yet to teach a great lesson on the power of obedience. His director commanded him to get well, if it were God’s will, and immediately his illness seemed to disappear and he left his bed to rejoin the community. He knew, however, that this cure was only temporary and that he had only a little over a month to live.
Before long he did have to return to his bed, and he began to prepare himself for death. He was absolutely abandoned to the will of God and had this sign placed on his door: “The will of God is done here, as God wills it and as long as He wills it.” Often he was heard to say this prayer: “My God, I wish to die in order to do Thy most holy will.” A little before midnight on October 15, 1755, his innocent soul went back to God.
At the death of Gerard, the Brother sacristan, in his excitement, rang the bell as if for a feast, instead of tolling it for a death. Thousands came to view the body of “their saint” and to try to find a last souvenir of the one who had helped them so often. After his death, miracles began to be reported from almost all parts of Italy, attributed to the intercession of Gerard. In 1893, Pope Leo XIII beatified him, and December 11, 1904, Pope Pius X canonized him as a saint.
The Mothers’ Saint
Because of the miracles God worked through Gerard’s prayers with mothers, the mothers of Italy took Gerard to their hearts and made him their patron. At the process of his beatification one witness testified that he was known as “il santo dei felice parti” — the saint of happy childbirth. This devotion has become very popular in North America, both in the United States and Canada.
Thousands of mothers have felt the power of St. Gerard through the League of St. Gerard. Many hospitals dedicate their maternity wards to him and give medals and prayer leaflets of St. Gerard to their patients. Thousands of children have been named after St. Gerard by parents who are convinced that it was his intercession that helped them to have healthy children. Even girls are named after him, and it is interesting how “Gerard” takes form as Gerarda, Geralyn, Gerardine, Gerianne, and Gerardette.