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A Treasury of Arkansas Writers Discussing the Catholic Faith
Official Website of the
Catholic Diocese of Little Rock
Published: May 6, 2023
By Sister M. Glorea Knaggs, OSB
Holy Angels Convent
If you had to come up with a name for a Catholic hospital, what would you call it? St. Vincent is a great choice, since the religious congregations he founded are dedicated to works of mercy. Many choose St. Luke, patron saint of physicians. But what about St. Bernard Tolomei? Have you ever wondered how Jonesboro’s medical center — St. Bernards — got its name?
In January, I had the privilege of visiting the Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore in central Italy. This is the motherhouse of my congregation, founded by St. Bernard Tolomei in 1319. I had read a lot about him, but encountering the place of his birth, the stories and the artwork that all pointed to the particular charism God gave him helped me even more to see why he is the perfect patron for our hospital.
Our hospital’s mission is to provide Christ-like healing to the community, and what better example of that do we have than St. Bernard, who sacrificed his own security and health to care for the sick.
St. Bernard was born in the late 13th century to a family of bankers in Siena, Italy. As a young man, he and some of his friends volunteered in a confraternity that cared for the sick in the local hospital. While at the height of his career as a professor of law at the local university, he suffered a serious illness that caused temporary blindness. When his sight was restored, he consecrated his life to God in thanksgiving to the Blessed Virgin for what he considered a miracle.
He and two companions left Siena to pursue a life of prayer and penance at Monte Oliveto. Five years later, St. Bernard had a vision in which monks in white habits were ascending a ladder with the assistance of angels, to Jesus and Mary. Around the same time, the local bishop had a dream in which the Virgin Mary appeared and told him to give Bernard Tolomei the Rule of St. Benedict and a white habit to wear in honor of her purity. For many years, the congregation experienced growth and founded several new monasteries.
In 1348, the Black Plague struck Italy. Word had reached St. Bernard that the plague was ravaging his hometown, about 20 miles from Monte Oliveto. The plague had not yet reached his abbey, but he courageously decided to leave the safety of Monte Oliveto to care for his monks in Siena who were sick, as well as those who came to the monastery to be cared for. He succumbed to the plague that year and was buried in a mass, unmarked grave. He was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009.
Certainly his story and heroic death came to our sisters’ minds during the malaria outbreak of 1900 when they established St. Bernards hospital in Jonesboro. During the COVID-19 pandemic, his story resurfaced as a source of inspiration and encouragement to us as we experienced the fear and uncertainty of that time.
Our hospital’s mission is to provide Christ-like healing to the community, and what better example of that do we have than St. Bernard, who sacrificed his own security and health to care for the sick. St. Bernard Tolomei, pray for us!