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St. Anthony: a living 'ark' and 'hammer'

Art at St. Anthony Church, Fort Lauderdale

FORT LAUDERDALE | Europe has seen remarkable saints: scholars, preachers, mystics, miracle workers. St. Anthony of Padua packed all of that into one frail, short life.

Anthony, who died at 36, gained prominence in two religious orders, the Augustinians and the Franciscans. And because of a vivid nighttime event, he is one of the few people – aside from Mary and Joseph themselves – depicted in artworks holding the Christ Child.

Born in 1195 in Lisbon, Portugal, Fernando Martins showed an early spirituality and, at 15, asked to study at an Augustinian abbey. He learned Latin and theology, then was ordained and served there as guestmaster.

The rose petal window shows several biblical scenes. At center is the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Photographer: Jim Davis | FC

The rose petal window shows several biblical scenes. At center is the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Fernando shifted focus when he learned of five Franciscans killed while ministering in northern Africa. He obtained permission to join that order, renaming himself Anthony in honor of St. Anthony of Egypt.

He traveled to Morocco to preach, but fell ill and had to return. He eventually went to a Franciscan hermitage in Tuscany, praying, studying and recovering.

Around 1225, some Dominicans visited, and the groups differed on who would give a homily. Finally, the head of the hermitage asked Anthony, who revealed a talent for eloquent preaching.

News of the event reached Francis himself, who assigned Anthony to teach his novices in Spain, France and Italy. Anthony’s knowledge and speaking skills also armed him to combat heretical movements of the day. He was popularly dubbed the “Hammer of Heretics,” and an admiring Pope Gregory IX called him the “Ark of the Testament.”

Anthony became renowned not only as a preacher and teacher but as a miracle worker. Among the many miracles attributed to him:

  • A crowd in the area of Padua lost interest in his speech, so he preached over a river. When they saw fish gather to listen, the people decided they'd better pay attention, too.
  • He preached outdoors during a thunderstorm, yet the rain never touched his listeners.
  • He was maliciously offered poisoned food by heretical enemies, but he rendered it harmless by making the sign of the cross.
  • A horse in Rimini refused oats placed before him, but resumed eating after he knelt before the Blessed Sacrament in Anthony’s hands.
  • A poor woman served him bread and wine but forgot to shut off the tap on the barrel, and all the wine ran out. Anthony prayed, and the barrel was replenished.

The image of Christ has a distinctly Mediterranean look.

Photographer: Jim Davis | FC

The image of Christ has a distinctly Mediterranean look.

Perhaps the most-depicted miracle was one unknown to most during his lifetime. As the story goes, a man in Limoges hosted Anthony at his country manor. One night, the host saw a light in the window and, looking closer, saw Anthony cradling a beautiful infant who likewise wrapped his arms around Anthony’s neck. The next morning, Anthony told him not to tell anyone about the event until after his death.

His health was never hearty, and as it faltered, he retired to Padua. His last year was marked by sermons on repentance and reconciliation, drawing crowds of 30,000 or more.

He died in 1231, with children weeping in the streets of Padua and, according to one legend, church bells ringing by themselves. He was so revered that Gregory IX canonized him about a year later.

In 1946, St. Anthony was declared a Doctor of the Church, a major authority in Catholic teachings. He’s the patron of lost articles and even lost people. His feast day is June 13.

The saint’s legacy is well preserved at his eponymous church in Fort Lauderdale. With Catholic families gathering for worship as early as 1913, St. Anthony is the oldest Catholic congregation in Broward County and one of the oldest in South Florida.

Luke the Evangelist is symbolized as a bull.

Photographer: Jim Davis | FC

Luke the Evangelist is symbolized as a bull.

Priests from Miami visited to say Mass at various venues including a hotel, an Elks Club and a remodeled home. The congregation in 1922 built its first church, a Gothic-style, 250-seat graystone, on E. Las Olas Boulevard.

The school opened in September 1926, the same month a hurricane devastated much of South Florida. Fortunately, the thick school walls held, and the building even sheltered storm victims afterward.

St. Anthony School’s gymnasium/auditorium also served Navy and Coast Guard servicemen during World War II.

Irish-born Msgr. John J. O'Looney served St. Anthony for 42 years starting in 1929. His efforts led to the creation of what are now Holy Cross Hospital and St. Thomas Aquinas High School.

St. Anthony is also the mother church for Annunciation, St. Jerome, St. Clement, St. Sebastian and Our Lady Queen of Martyrs parishes.

By the 1930s, the graystone structure was too small for the many Catholics moving to Fort Lauderdale. Msgr. O'Looney launched another fund drive for a new, 1,000-seat church. That building was dedicated with a Solemn High Mass in 1949.

St. Anthony even benefited a Protestant church, First Lutheran of Fort Lauderdale. When the Lutherans heard the Catholic congregation was moving, they bought the stones and reassembled them a few blocks north.

Parishioners volunteer as lectors, altar servers and extraordinary ministers of Communion. They also join adult and children’s choirs, plus young adult and scripture study groups.

Among community outreaches are ministries to the homeless, the bereaved, cancer patients, nursing home residents and substance abuse victims. Parishioners also help with Respect Life and Habitat for Humanity.