Monday, April 16, 2012

An American Hermit - Rather, A Hermit in America.

Way before the Canon 603 type arrived...

He was a real hermit too.  Poor, penitential, solitary, rugged, prayerful, desert-father-ish... so different from what we see today.  (No offense intended.)  His name is Giovanni Maria de Agostini, and he was known as Fr. Francesco.  He seems to have been a penitent, initially living a life similar to St. Benedict Joseph Labre.  I find it interesting how frequently such ascetics are dismissed in our day as being misfits, mentally ill, and so forth.

 To my very pleasant surprise, I discovered today that he died on the 17 of April, 1869, making this day the eve of the anniversary of his death. How providential is that?

Fr. Francesco was born in Italy in 1801 to nobility, studied for the priesthood, but was 'exiled' after an amorous affair with a young woman.  His pilgrimage finally led him to Las Cruces, New Mexico.
Everywhere he went, he preached and catechized when permission was given by local bishops but steadfastly refused to accept holy orders “because my vocation called me to solitude, not to the exalted ministry of the priesthood.”
Eventually he traveled (always by foot) through Central America and southern Mexico where he was expelled by the anti-clerical government of Benito Juarez. He went briefly to Cuba; sailed north to Quebec Province and then traveled through the U.S. By then he was a venerable old man in his 60′s with a long white beard, a pilgrim’s staff and bell, and still wearing his black capa and hood. Once in New Mexico, he wandered the small villages, giving advice and counsel, helping children with their catechism, and healing the ill and infirm with potions and herbs. Some legends even ascribe miracles to him. But the continuous press of people pushed him to seek greater solitude on Cerro del Tecolote. Friends built him a small cabin over a spring on the crest. However people continued to seek him out and he moved once more, 300 miles south to the Organ Mountains outside Las Cruces. There, too, he made friends and agreed to light a signal fire every 3rd night so they would know he was all right.

On the appointed night in mid-April, 1869 no fire was seen. A posse was formed which found Giovanni Maria, now 69, lying prostrate on the ground with a dagger in his back. They surmised he was killed while kneeling at prayer by someone who knew his habits. To this day, his memory is revered and the places made holy by his presence are reverently cared for. Twice yearly formal pilgrimages are made to the crest of Hermit’s Peak (renamed in his honor,) near Las Vegas, NM. - Source

Hermit's cave.  Reminds me of the Carceri in Italy.

How cool is that?  I wonder how he was able to get along without the Internet?  How did he publish the minutiae of his holy life?  How did he get donations?  Okay - I'll stop.  ;)

More information here.

Photo credit.


  1. How did you even find out about this holy hermit? He rather reminds me of the "Starets" tradition among the Russian Orthodox in a way. I always wanted to meet a real "Starets" though in a way I was also afraid of doing so. I wonder why someone would have killed this hermit? What motive could they possibly have had? He really got around from southern Mexico back up to Quebec and then wandered back down to New Mexico. I'm assuming his conversion and subsequent life as an ascetic had to do with the affair?

  2. You know Terry you mentioned that today such a person would likely be seen as mentally ill etc. It reminded me of an experience I had as a boy of 9 or 10. My siblings and I took our picnic lunch to the park in our little town of 250 inhabitants. We had noticed there was an old station wagon loaded with all kinds of things and a lonely woman who slept in it. She sat in the park and we went to sit with her and share our lunch. She related the sad story of her life and a husband who left her for another woman and had turned her children against her but she didn't seem angry or bitter. We of course had never heard such things as that and were rather taken aback. One thing I will always remember about her is that she had a worn holy picture of Jesus knocking on a door. She said to us, "Do you know who this is?" and we said, "yes it's Jesus" She said, "always remember that Jesus is the bright shining Sun" I've thought of her over the years. She didn't know where she was going. She just was driving highway 12 west. I remember she said she was from Baltimore. That evening we related to my mother and her sister what had happened and my aunt said something that has always bothered me, "you kids shouldn't speak to people like that she has something wrong with her" I was scandalised by that. I was deeply offended that my aunt could seem so callous. I'm sure she mean't well but it just really affected me. I don't think I ever viewed her the same after that. That woman was harmless.

  3. I came across it on a site about ascetics - all by accident - or providence, as I said. Cool story, huh?

    I like your homeless woman story very much.

  4. Thank you for this, Terry. I'd never heard of him. He reminds me very much of one of my patrons, St. Sharbel Mahklouf.

  5. I love St. Sharbel myself.

  6. The strange thing Terry is that we had never heard of "homeless" people there in our bubble on the prairie. My mother brought us up to always think and assume the best of everyone. I was shocked as you can imagine when I discovered that things aren't always what they seem. I resented having been raised to be so trusting for years. However, I would not have had it any other way when I look back on it. I feel sorry for people who have never known that trust for better or worse. What the woman related to us about her life was inappropriate for children and yet i'm glad she did do it. It was one of the first times I was presented with real/perceived injustice and my heart went out to her. Our society would be different if we had that trust. I remember being called naieve for years by friends and I guess I was but I'm glad I was.

  7. I think it is important to remember that while some homeless and poor people may well be duping you, I think the safe thing is to ALWAYS give the benefit of the doubt, ALWAYS think "what if this IS Jesus in disguise" and ALWAYS remember "whatsoever you did to the least of these ..."

    Maybe if it's so completely obvious the guy's gonna use money for heroine, or maybe for women for whom there may be other dangers, this would have to be modified, I dunno.

    And maybe I'm too simplistic, I don't know.

  8. Mercury I think you are absolutely right. My dad instilled in us growing up the belief that they (beggers, hitchhikers, homeless) might be angels or the LORD Himself in disguise. Over the years I have told that to people who look at me like I've lost my mind but I firmly believe this to be true. My Grandma was big on "the benefit of the doubt". Her whole life was about "the benefit of the doubt". I pray that I can be more like her.

  9. My dad instilled in us growing up the belief that they (beggers, hitchhikers, homeless) might be angels or the LORD Himself in disguise.

    I draw the line at hitchhikers. Hitchhiking was part of Ted Bundy's act. Unless I'm traveling with a bunch of linebackers, I will not take a strange, able-bodied-looking person into my car. There is such a thing as prudence.

  10. I'd be wary of hitchhikers too. I should do a post on it.

  11. I don't know I suppose the prairie roads of Montana and North Dakota of the 1960s and 1970s was my dad's point of reference because that's what he knew. People there are still pretty trusting. They don't lock their doors (even when they are gone for weeks at a time). When I was growing up you left a note on the door telling where you went and what time you would be back and for whoever was reading it to make themselves at home. I cant imagine that happening here in Kentucky or anyplace else I've lived. I don't know whether those people back there lacked prudence.


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