Saint Albert of Bergamo
Worker. Pilgrim. Saint.
Join me this week as we meet a saint whose heroic life of work went almost unnoticed - except by God.
Name: Albert/Alberto, Albert of Bergamo, Albert of Villa d’Ogna
Life: died 1279
Feast: May 7
Albert of Bergamo would have been content to spend his whole life as a farmer. But then they stole his farm. It happened all too often during the growth years of the 13th century: a powerful lord with children and friends in need of lands pushed out the peasants who lived near him. Albert was tossed onto the road, left with nothing.
In better times, Albert had tried to help those trudging along the road beside his farm, making their way to the city. Back then Albert had been married. For a while, his generosity had caused conflict with his wife. She would lay the table, but then Albert would see a hungry beggar passing the house. She and the labourers would come in to eat, only to find that Albert had given away their dinner. This caused shouting and fights. But over the years that they had together, Albert’s approach had won her over. It probably helped that on several occasions Albert met her anger with a quiet prayer and they returned to the kitchen to find that a new meal had been miraculously provided. His wife had died young, but by that time she and Albert were partners in charity.
Now Albert found himself alone in the world. His parents were dead. His wife was dead. They had no children. That was when the news came that the local lord was going to take his farm. So Albert joined the other peasants trudging along the road, and headed off to the big city of Cremona.
Many of the people forced off their farms were made bitter by the experience. You can understand why they would be. They dropped from the middle class into the lower class. They’d never again have the freedom of a small farmer. We might compare their work to work in today’s gig economy: low prestige, low pay, dead end jobs. But Albert considered that God had set him on this new path, and he determined to make something good out of it. Even dead end work, Albert thought, could be a way of worshipping God. On the way into Cremona, he would walk until he needed to buy food or clothes, and then work for a farmer or a merchant until he had made enough money to cover his necessities. Anything extra, he gave to the poor.
Albert’s first job in Cremona was that of wine porter. Cheap glass bottles hadn’t yet been developed, and the ancient art of sealing wine with a cork hadn’t yet reappeared in medieval Europe. So wine was barreled and then parceled out and moved by wine porters like Albert. Wine porters stood around the market, waiting for jobs, easy to recognize by their characteristic backpack-barrel, or brenta.
The wine porter would bring the wine from the merchant to your house or shop. He would fill up the brenta - guild regulations in Cremona said that a full brenta was about 17 gallons or 64 litres, weighing well over a hundred pounds. Then he would deliver the wine to you and pour it into your containers, using his special trick of bending forward, moving his head to one side and bracing himself with a stick to get a perfect pour.
The 50 or so wine porters of Cremona were not influential men, but through their guild Albert began to participate in city life. Like most guilds, the wine porters helped with certain saints’ days and festivals, and had secondary functions in the city. For example, they were part of the fire brigade. If they heard the shout of fire, wine porters were required to fill their brente with water and come running.
It was while he was part of this small community that Albert performed one of the miracles that the wine porters would later remember. A full brenta caught on a wall and broke - it is not clear whether it was Albert’s or someone else’s - and the valuable wine spilled everywhere. Catastrophe! The brenta alone would be difficult to replace, and the wine would have to be paid for. Albert prayed over it, using a prayer he used often.
“Help me, O King of Glory.”
Albert knelt down and picked up the pieces of the brenta. In his hands, the parts knitted themselves back together, solid as ever. Then he reached down for the wine. It should have run away into the stones and dirt of the street, but instead it flowed back into his hands, clean and unpolluted, and he poured it back into the brenta. It was the best wine anyone had ever tasted.
We don’t know how long Albert worked as a wine porter. We do know that over time, he began to feel a calling to something else, one of the most dangerous medieval forms of devotion: pilgrimage.
There were three major destinations for pilgrims in medieval Europe. Rome, Santiago de Compostela in Spain, and Jerusalem. Albert only went to Jerusalem once, but he visited Rome nine times and Santiago de Compostela eight times. The sheer number of his pilgrimages can help us understand his motivations. A pilgrimage can grant an indulgence, and that indulgence does not necessarily have to be for the person who did the pilgrimage. In the middle ages the old and sick often asked others to complete pilgrimages on their behalf. I’d guess that many of Albert’s travels were for someone else.
Pilgrimages were dangerous and exhausting. We can understand the mood of a pilgrim from the account of the Swiss Dominican Felix Fabri, who lived several centuries after Albert, and who had after a long time given in to his “fever of longing” to go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Before he left, Brother Felix said his final goodbyes and updated his will. He knew he faced robbers, shipwrecks, pirates, slavers, and the very real danger of getting lost or sick or crippled on the way. As he travelled through modern Italy to Venice, Brother Felix had to psych himself up to keep going almost every day until he was actually on a boat headed across the Mediterranean.
Pilgrimages cost money. A pilgrim like Brother Felix could pay his own way. How about Albert? The answer gives us a sense of how long it must have taken him to complete 18 pilgrimages. Albert was self-financed, and he stopped along the route to take on labour jobs. He would have been on the road for years, working his way West to Spain, South to Rome, and East to Venice to take a ship to the Holy Land.
Later, after Albert died, stories of small miracles emerged about his time as a farm labourer. Albert understood the work as part of his service to God. He worked hard, and his fellow workers would say that sometimes there was a second figure out in the fields with him, quietly working alongside him, as if his guardian angel had picked up a scythe and joined in. But even when Albert seemed to have completed the work of two men, he gave the extra pay to those with less.
Still, Albert’s work ethic bothered labourers who were slacking off, so on one occasion some of them set a trap for him. They carried a blacksmith’s anvil into the field, and hid it among the grain that he would be harvesting. The idea is that he would swing his scythe into it with full force and blunt or even ruin the blade. That would teach him to work harder than everyone else. They watched Albert work for the day, but he gave no sign that he had noticed anything out of the ordinary. He must have gotten lucky and somehow missed the anvil, they thought. But when they went to retrieve it, they found he hadn’t missed it at all. Somehow, miraculously, the anvil had been sliced in half.
Farm labour would have helped Albert move around Europe. But how did he get to Jerusalem? He probably travelled by boat, as Brother Felix did, and likely also from Venice. Like Brother Felix, he would have waited to join a big group of pilgrims, which would provide some safety in numbers and enable them to get good guides on the other side. The trick, indicated Brother Felix in his memoirs, was to find a decent group that did not include any “drunken Flemings”.
Perhaps Albert worked until he had enough to pay for passage. Another possibility is that he worked his way across by rowing in a galley. On Brother Felix’s ship, there were three ship-wide prayers everyday, and pilgrims often prayed through the days. That helped with the stress of sea travel. Storms could be deadly. There were pirates eager for Christian slaves. Brother Felix also worried about the Troys fish, which sailors told him has a “beak fashioned like an auger, and unless he be driven away from the ship he bores through it.” The only way to get rid of this fish is to stick your head over the side of the ship and meet it in a staring contest. But beware: “If he who looks at the fish grows terrified, and begins to turn his eyes away, the beast straightway rises, snatches him down beneath the water, and devours him.” (Aubrey Stewart translation)
Even if you avoided the Troys fish drilling through the boat, that did not mean that shipboard life was pleasant for a pilgrim - especially at night. Pilgrims slept below deck, lying in a row along the inside of the hull so that their feet were facing downward to the ship’s keel. It was hot and stuffy, and the hold was crawling with fleas, lice, mice and rats. Pilgrims had to sleep pretty well shoulder to shoulder, which meant they managed to get on one another’s nerves in all the ways you’d expect. Some were light sleepers. Some snored. Some were night owls who liked to keep a candle burning to read, and others learned that a well-aimed full chamber-pot would put out the light and send a strong message of disapproval besides. To Brother Felix’s intense annoyance, he discovered that his group included several hard drinking Flemings.
Once the ship had ridden out storms and dodged pirates, travelling around the Holy Land posed challenges of its own. Pilgrims moved in groups, following local guides who could point out which churches were good to visit and which were ambushes set by Muslim raiders. Brother Felix’s group was a rowdy cross-section of medieval life. Knights, friars, merchants, little old ladies walked together, sang together, bickered and prayed. Even though Albert visited two centuries earlier, he must have had similar companions, and I like to imagine him tagging along, quiet as always, taking everything in, ready to lend a hand, half lost in prayer.
The pilgrims were amazed and delighted to see things they had only read about. There were all sorts of rules to learn, for example the three rules of the River Jordan. When Brother Felix’s group got there, their guides explained: no swimming across, no diving, and no filling up bottles of water to take home. Of course, Brother Felix and a bunch of others immediately broke Rule One, stripped off and swam across. But there were strange currents in the water, and one man almost drowned on his way to the far side. Brother Felix watched with concern as he was dragged back by two strong knights, and even then he floated away from them and flopped onto the shore half dead.
It suddenly occurred to Brother Felix that he might not make it back to the safe side of the Jordan. Well, at least he would die with a clean conscience. Or would he? It suddenly hit him that he had stripped off his habit and scapular, neither of which he was supposed to remove, and certainly never in mixed company. “I shall sink from the depths of this water into the pit of hell, because of my dissolute levity and my irreligious nakedness,” he thought. Well, there was nothing for it. He prayed, crossed himself and launched himself into the water, crawling across the river and immediately putting his vestments back on. On his next chance to go swimming, he was much more circumspect. He dipped himself into the water, still fully clothed.
Diving in the Jordan could be deadly as well. Rule Three about bringing back bottled water had to do with a widespread belief - which Brother Felix takes several pages to debunk from a theological perspective - that a ship containing water from the Jordan was bound to sink. Superstition or not, sailors who found water from the Jordan on board were liable to throw the souvenir and its owner overboard. A much safer choice, the guides told the skeptical Brother Felix, was to dip a bell in the waters of the Jordan, for its ringing would then protect against lighting and hail. “Whether ... these ... tales, be true or superstitious,” writes Brother Felix, “a sensible man must decide for himself.”
At the end of all the dangers and the work waited the pilgrim’s reward, of experiencing and praying in the holy places. Pilgrims often struggled to explain why they went, and words failed them when they tried to convey what they found. Here’s the German pilgrim Burchard of Sion, who visited Jerusalem around the same time Albert would have.
O Lord God, I see Abraham, as is related in the ancient histories, leaving his country, his father’s house and his kindred and hastening to this land, setting up his tent between Bethel and Ai, and dwelling in Gerar, Beer-sheba and Hebron. I see Ezekiel forsaking the rivers of Babylon and, in order to come to Jerusalem, flying there, carried by the hair of his head between heaven and earth. What shall I say of the glorious Virgin, who, after the angelic salutation and promise was made to her by which she knew that her womb had been made the tabernacle of God, immediately hastened to go up into the mountain country of Judæa, wishing to draw near to the holy places? What shall I say of the patriarch Jacob and of Joseph and his brothers, who because they could not remain in that land when living chose to be buried in it when they died? (Denys Pringle translation)
Albert must have spent years on the road. After a long time, he returned to Cremona. By now he would have been entering his 60s. He had worked hard his entire life, but now he was too old to lug a brenta of wine. Instead he found work helping in the garden of the Dominican monastery. Eventually, Albert joined the Dominicans, entering as a layman in the third order. He wore a habit and would pray the daily offices. He especially liked to pray in his local church, the Church of Saint Matthew (which is no longer standing), where he had found a quiet spot, tucked away near the seating for the choir.
Albert also opened his small house to pilgrims, passing on what he had learned, perhaps even including the three rules of the River Jordan. He’d then send the pilgrims on their way with whatever extra money he could spare. He also spent his time helping the sick and dying in Cremona. When it was three in the morning and no one else was available, Albert was the one you called.
When Albert was in his mid sixties, still living in Cremona, he suddenly got very sick. He felt that he was dying. A friend went to get a priest while Albert held his crucifix and waited. Over the course of his life Albert had served God, travelled widely, worked hard and made a difference in the lives of innumerable people along the way. But he had never made the sort of big difference that would make him famous. As far as most of his contemporaries were concerned, Albert died as a nobody. Even the priest he had sent for was busy and ended up getting there too late to give him the last rites.
And yet Albert’s death did not go unobserved. To the amazement of those with him, as he was waiting for the slow priest, a white dove flew into the window. In its beak it held the host, the Blessed Sacrament, and Albert didn’t hesitate. He received the Sacrament and then lay back. When he died, his friends were surprised again by a burst of noise. After a moment they realized that it was bells - all of them, in every church in Cremona, ringing and ringing of their own accord.
Albert had a reputation for his goodness in the city. News of the strange happenings as he was dying quickly spread, so the crowd for his funeral was too big to fit into the Church of Saint Matthew. At the end of the funeral, Albert was supposed to be buried in the part of the cemetery that was reserved for ordinary people: it was what he would have expected as a commoner and a layman. But the gravediggers came back to report that they had run into an embarrassing difficulty. They couldn’t dig the grave. It wasn’t that they weren’t trying, but no matter how hard they tried, they couldn’t get their picks or shovels into the ground. It was as if the ground turned to granite when they went to dig Albert’s grave.
An argument broke out about what to do with the body, until the group at the funeral made another interesting discovery. Near the spot where Albert liked to pray, tucked away beside the choir in the Church of Saint Matthew, there was a stone cubby that could hold a body. Indeed, it looked as though it had been made to hold a body. Who was buried there? Nobody, apparently. What was the cubby for? Why had it been built in the first place? Did anyone own it or have plans for it? No one knew. But it looked as though it would be the perfect place to bury a saint. The gravediggers didn’t have a better option, and that is how Albert of Bergamo was buried in a stone tomb in the Church of Saint Matthew.
It would be several centuries before the veneration of Saint Albert of Bergamo was made official. This did not stop a wave of Albert-o-mania from rolling over Northern Italy. Albert’s story was that of many peasants who had been pushed off their lands into the cities. The response was so enthusiastic that in nearby Parma, the Franciscan Salimbene de Adam was scandalized to find even priests encouraging the veneration of Saint Albert in church before it had become approved. One priest, Salimbene reported with satisfaction, had bought a black market relic of Albert, supposedly the saint’s toe, and reverently laid it on the altar. But then the priest’s keen Italian nose sensed that something was amiss. The ‘toe’ smelled like... could it be… garlic? Looking more closely, the priest realized to his chagrin that he had been duped, he had been sold a garlic clove that sort of looked like a toe. Salimbene de Adam thought it served him right.
But it was Salimbene who was missing the big picture. Saint Albert of Bergamo showed that even a wine porter - or for that matter a day labourer, a security guard, an Amazon delivery driver - can lead a life of heroic virtue. The work didn’t drag Saint Albert down. He dragged it up, turning his small life into something transcendent and holy and singled out by God. Saint Josemaria Escriva could have been thinking of the story of Saint Albert when he wrote, centuries later: “Sanctifying one’s work is no fantastic dream, but the mission of every Christian.”
“That ordinary job,” says Saint Josemaria, “has to be a constant prayer for you. ... It is very much our mission to transform the prose of this world into poetry, into heroic verse.”
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