St. William of Vercelli
St. William of Vercelli is honored as a saint who was a leader in monastic life—both because he established a number of monasteries and because his rigorous discipline, prayer, and fasting was an example for many monks.
He was born in 1085 in northern Italy. When he was an infant, both of his parents died and he was raised by extended family. He must have had an uncommon connection to the divine because at the age of 14 he left his home and family and set out on pilgrimage to the Santiago de Compostela in Spain—he even fastened two iron bands around his body as extra mortification.
Not much else of his youth is known. As an adult, he returned to Italy and lived as a hermit on a mountainside, and became locally famous for healing a blind man. To escape the acclaim, he left the area and went to stay with another hermit, St. John of Matera, and the two became close friends.
William intended to continue on to Jerusalem as a poor pilgrim, but John had a sense that God was calling William to something else. William departed, but was mugged by robbers, and took that event as a sign that his friend was right.
He went to live on a mountain named after the ancient poet Virgil, and a number of priests and lay men joined him. He formed them into a community and built a church there, naming it after Mary in 1124. The mountain became known as Monte Vergine after that—and still is called that today. The monastery is still there as well, part of the Benedictine congregation.
A colorful legend tells of William building the church on Monte Vergine himself with only a donkey to help him. One night a wolf killed and ate the donkey. William scolded the wolf, and ordered it to take the donkey’s place. Sensing it had interfered with a divine plan, the wolf obeyed and began hauling loads of stone for the saint.
After forming the community on Monte Vergine, William appointed an abbot and left with a few followers and his friend, John. He established another monastery in a nearby region. Again, after it had taken root, he appointed an abbot and went on to found other communities.
The king of Naples asked William to join his court because he wanted William’s advice. Some of the king’s courtiers distrusted and disliked William, and they set a trap for him. They sent to his room a prostitute to lure him into sin. When she entered the room, William is said to have walked to the fireplace, laid down in the coals, and invited her to lay with him there.
The woman was horrified, but was amazed when William rose from the hearth unharmed. The story goes that she converted on the spot and entered a convent.
St. William died on this date in 1142, and his relics rest in the reliquary chapel in the Basilica. His image is used here with permission from Catholic.org.
St. William of Vercelli, you traveled through Spain as a 14-year-old pilgrim, and grew up to lead monasteries--pray for us!