The Acts of St. Lawrence or “How to cook a Christian”

St. Lawrence was a deacon and martyr of the early church. I thought it would be good to relate the generous and heroic life of the patron of our dear seaway; the beautiful island of Montreal rests within the icy embrace of the mighty St. Lawrence River. When I was young, I was told that our river was so named because Jacques Cartier reached the mouth of the seaway on the feast day of St. Lawrence, August 10th (probably on his second voyage in 1535). Although I must say I am not sure how accurate that is. Laurence was born in Huesca, Aragon (Spain) but his story takes place in Rome during the persecutions of Emperor Valerian (reign 256-260); he was one of the seven deacons to Pope Sixtus II (pope for less than a year 257-258). His legend is recounted in the Acts of Lawrence and the Depositio Martyrum but the account was largely popularized by St. Ambrose (330-397), Bishop of Milan.

According to St. Cyprian (200-258), Bishop of Carthage, Emperor Valerian had issued an edict to the Roman Senate to the effect that bishops, priests and deacons of the Church were to be executed. Pope Sixtus II was arrested and along with four of his deacons, was beheaded on August 6th, 258. However, before his execution Lawrence met him on his way to prison and the Pope instructed Lawrence to distribute the Church’s treasures to the poor. A centurion overheard their conversation and reported it to the Roman prefect (a magistrate). Enticed by the possibility of treasures, he called Lawrence before him and demanded the treasures of the Church. Lawrence replied that he would deliver everything in three days time. During those three days, Lawrence carried out the martyred pope’s instructions and distributed their wealth among the poor of the community. On the third day, Lawrence gathered together widows, orphans, the poor and sick and brought them to the prefect’s court. On seeing the pitiful crowd the prefect became angry and demanded his treasures; Lawrence calmly explained that these were the “treasures of the Church”. The prefect was not so amused by the young deacon’s humorous lesson and ordered his torture and execution.

The legend tells that a large gridiron was placed over burning coals and Lawrence was bound to the red-hot gridiron to be roasted alive. Despite his suffering, Lawrence did not lose faith or his sense of humour. After sometime, much to their amazement, he told his tormentors with a smile, “Kindly turn me over, this side is done!” They complied with his wishes and just before he expired, he joked “I am cooked enough; you may eat!” He died praying for the conversion of Rome.

Lawrence was martyred on August 10th, 258 and is entombed at St-Lawrence-Without-the-Walls in Rome. Lawrence’s unbreakable spirit and courage in the face of extreme torture is remarkable. He is one of the Saints of Rome and the patron of Sri Lanka. He was supposed to have been the Church’s librarian and as such he is the patron of librarians; because of his alms giving, he is the patron of the poor. Oddly enough, on account of his gruesome death, he is also the patron of chefs and cooks. Likewise, he is invoked against fire. He is also associated with St. Stephen, who was also a martyred deacon (in fact,  the very first Christian martyr and one of the first seven deacons appointed by the Apostles).

Two strange little tidbits: 1- The gridiron on which Lawrence was roasted can still be found in the Church of San Lorenzo in Rome. 2- Pope Gregory XIII (papacy 1572-85) gifted a jar of Lawrence’s melted fat to Spain.

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