A Patron Saint for Gardeners

On April 20, 1586, Maria del Oliva, a woman of mixed Spanish and Incan descent, gave birth to a daughter whom she and her husband, Gaspar de Flores, named Isabel. As one of the family's Incan housemaids admired the newborn, she commented that the infant Isabel was lovely "as a rose." The compliment stuck; the family began to call their beautiful child Rose.

Years later Isabel took as her confirmation name Rosa de Santa Maria (incidentally, the archbishop who confirmed her was the great St. Turibius de Mogrovejo).

Given their own position in Lima society and Rose's beauty her parents expected her to marry well, but Rose refused; she wanted to enter a convent. Gaspar and Maria pleaded with Rose to marry; Rose responded by pleading with her parents to let her enter a cloister. The family impasse lasted 10 years until at last they arrived at compromise: Gaspar and Maria abandoned all hope of marriage for their daughter and Rose gave up her dream of becoming a nun. Instead, she joined the Dominican Third Order which permitted her to take religious vows and wear the religious habit, but live in the world rather than in a convent.

With the help of one of her brothers, Rose built a small cottage for herself in the family garden. Not long afterward the Flores family fell on hard times. Gaspar had invested heavily in a mining operation; when the mine failed, the Floreses were virtually bankrupt. To help support her family Rose did lacework and embroidery and she became a professional gardener, selling the flowers she raised in the market of Lima. Ever since, gardeners have revered St. Rose as their patron, the saint who helps them produce glorious blooms and keep insects at bay.

 Her family's distress made Rose more sensitive to the misfortunes of others. With her parents' permission, Rose made one room of their house an informal clinic where she tended sick and needy children and elderly people. This combination of charity, piety, and physical beauty led the people of Lima to regard Rose as their own home-grown saint. Stories of the miracles wrought by Rose began to circulate through the city. It was said that through her prayers, Lima had been spared an attack by pirates. Patients at her infirmary said Rose had a healing touch, and claimed that even greater cures were granted to her because she had set up in the sickroom a statue of Christ dressed as a physician (this wonder-working image was venerated as El Mediquito, The Little Doctor).

Tragically, this beloved young woman died of an unknown illness when she was only 31 years old.

So many people in Peru asserted that she was a saint that the bishops of the country began the process to investigate Rose's life and virtues immediately. In 1668 Pope Clement IX beatified Rose, and three years later Pope Clement X canonized her, making Rose of Lima the first saint of the New World. Her feast day is August 23rd.

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Thomas Craughwell is the author of Saints for Every Occasion (Stampley Enterprises, 2001).

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