Saint Hilarion or Ilarion, as he was known, was born in the village of Tabatha in 291 A.D, about five miles south of Gaza, Palestine. He grew, according to the proverb, like a rose from a thorn, because he was born into a family that worshiped idols. His family sent him to Alexandria where he was placed in the care of a linguist. Here Ilarion, for his age, gave great proof of his talent – in a brief period of time he became very knowledgeable in literature and was loved and sought after by those in the community.
The story of Saint Hilarion
Unlike most other people of his time, Ilarion had great belief in Jesus Christ, therefore, as it was described, his pleasures were not found in the follies of the circus, nor in the blood of the arena, nor were they found in the dissoluteness of the theatre – they were found exclusively in the church’s reunions. There, having heard about the acclaimed name of Anthony, who was being praised by all the populations of Egypt, Ilarion became fired with the desire to see him. Thus he set out, and as soon as he set eyes on him, he changed his former robes to stay with, and learn from him.
From the time he was fifteen years old he lived as a hermit for the rest of his life, dying at the age of eighty (in 371 A.D.). This is according to the teachings of Anthony, founder of the oriental monasticism.
Ilarion lived in Palestine (he is in fact considered the founder of the Palestinian monasticism), in Syria and in Egypt; until he departed from the latter bound for Sicily. As written by Saint Girolamo, it is expressly stated that Ilarion landed in Pachino, a Sicilian promontory. He then withdrew twenty miles inland to a solitary place where he soon became renowned for his miracles.
Joined in Sicily by his disciple Esichio, he let it be known that he was unable to carry on living there. He wanted to travel to a certain barbaric population where his name and language would be unknown and where he could, as a consequence, live in solitude. Esichio therefore led him through the Adriatic Sea to Epidauro, to a Dalmatian city. Even this far away Ilarion was unable to remain hidden because he was yet again called upon to work miracles. He freed the region from a terrible dragon which destroyed crops and livestock when it wasn’t devouring farmers and shepherds.
Then he was called upon to stop a tidal wave which he did by drawing three crosses in the sand. Yet another time, with only a gesture of his hand he forced three pirate ships, who were a threat to the population, to rebound from the coast instead of landing. It is said that the pirates were bewildered by the fact that against their will they were sailing away from the coast. The more they rowed towards the shore, the further away from it they got. After this, Ilarion left Dalmatia in search of a more solitary place.
Saint Girolamo recounts that after a long journey he disembarked on the island of Cyprus from where he wished to return to Egypt, precisely to a place known as Bucolica because in that region there were no Christians, only a ferocious and barbaric population. Esichio managed to convince him to stay in Cyprus, and to retire to a hidden place found about twelve miles from the sea.
When he reached the place, Ilarion looked upon it with wonder. It was terribly remote and awful, cut off on all sides by trees, had a small source of water running down from the side of a hill, a very meagre vegetable plot and many fruit trees from which he never ate any fruit.
He died in Cyprus at the age of eighty (this is how Saint Girolamo, in chapter thirty), describes the place Ilarion chose as his last home.
Many legends arose in Caulonia surrounding the relic of Saint Ilarion and regarding its thaumaturgical powers. Stories have been passed on from generation to generation.
Origins of the following of Saint Hilarion in Caulonia
As Jesus Christ did, Ilarion worked many miracles, healing the sick and curing the crippled, restoring sight to the blind, exorcising the possessed and invoking rain against droughts.
The miracle of rain worked by Ilarion at Afroditon during his lifetime (according to Girolamo in chapter 22 of his work) was repeated at Caulonia, a small town in the Region of Calabria in southern Italy, on 14 May 1855. Due to an exceptional drought, the people wished to implore rain from their Patron Saint by carrying their relic in a procession to the hermitage of San Nicola, and the procession was to take place on 13 May.
On the 14th, rain arrived, according to the testimony of the archpriest Davide Prota, which is recounted on page 254 of his “Ricerche Storiche su Caulonia (Historical Research on Caulonia), edited in Roccella Jonica by the Tipografia Toscana in 1913. The archpriest certainly is a credible witness if one considers the detachment with which he treats all the religious events associated with Caulonia.
From that year onwards, therefore, Saint Ilarion’s Day, which occurs on 21 October, is also repeated on 13 May.
Following are quoted pages of the archpriest Prota’s work which describe the essential points regarding the origins of the cult of Saint Ilarion in Caulonia and of the formation of the traditions surrounding the festivity:
§ The decree for the proclamation as Patron Saint of the city was issued by the Bishop Carlo Pinto on the twenty-second of October 1629, but the tradition of the festivity dates back to feudal times, when the marquis, feudatory of Castelvetere (today’s Caulonia), sent his troops to honour the relic of the Saint (an ulna set in a silver arm) which was departing for the convent (still existing today) of Saint Nicholas in the mountains.
§ In 1815 a statue was added to the relic, sculpted in wood by a skilled artist from Serra by the name of Saint Bruno, thus was born among the people the false belief that Saint Bruno and Saint Ilarion were brothers who chose to do penance along the shores of the Allaro (river). It was said that the first brother would eat nothing but a few lupines a day, throwing the shells into the water which would then be gathered up and eaten by Ilarion downstream. However, we now know that Ilarion lived between the third and fourth century, while Saint Bruno founded his Carthusian monastery in Calabria in 1091.
The Caulonian people find the position of his last place surprisingly similar to the place where the convent on the Allaro, (between San Nicola and Calatria), is found and to where the Saint’s relic is taken twice a year.
About ten months following the death of Ilarion, Esichio was able to smuggle the corpse to Maiuma, in Palestine, giving it proper burial in the ancient monastery found there.
A relic of the Saint (the bone of an arm) is still worshiped today in Caulonia, although precisely how it reached Caulonia is still unknown and the history of its conveyance is inextricably tangled up with the legend. When oriental monasticism, by now definitively regulated and ordered by Saint Basilio di Cesarea, became widespread even in the west, many relics of different Saints were brought to the lands and offered to the people to adore; others still were brought back by the Crusaders returning from the Holy Land.
Many legends arose in Caulonia surrounding the relic of Saint Ilarion and regarding its thaumaturgical powers. Stories have been passed on from generation to generation:
§ The great misadventure of a Caulonian marquis who had cast doubts on the authenticity of the relic (the bone of an arm). Apparently he was immediately paralysed, so he implored the Saint to cure him with prayers and promised to provide an adequate reliquary. The healing was prompt, so the marquis commissioned the sculpture of the silver arm which even today conserves the Saint’s relic.
§ Many Caulonian migrants to America and Australia swore that they had seen their ship upheld by a little old man in Oceanic storms whom they didn’t hesitate to recognise as their Patron Saint.
§ During the war it was said that Saint Ilarion had covered the village with thick clouds to avoid it being bombarded.
For all these graces and miracles the Caulonians honoured the Saint by improvising new strophes for the anonymous songs which have been sung for centuries during the processions. One of these verses is “Volgi benigno il ciglio, gran Santo Ilario, a noi, che in questo esilio, abbiamo fiducia in te” (Look kindly upon us, great Saint Ilario, on us, who in this exile, have faith in you).
Festivities were then celebrated (and it was a sign of the times) with much pomp and circumstance. The population began the preparations many months beforehand:
§ The tailors had to finish clothes ordered from them four or five months earlier in time for Saint Ilarion’s Day (the Caulonians frequently called their Saint “Ilario”); even the shoemakers had to meet this deadline, seeing as then they not only repaired shoes but also made new ones. As the festivities drew near, the carpenters’ and the blacksmiths’ workload also increased.
§ On the novenae days, men and women would come down from the mountain villages of S. Todaro, Cassari, Ragonà, Gozza and Nardo di Pace bearing sacks of nuts and chestnuts, or crates of mushrooms and strawberries on their shoulders; at the time there were no roads and the journey had to be made on foot. These people would sit along the steps of “Piazza Mese” before the holy mass began and sell what they had brought or exchange it for a few bottles of oil.
The various competitions
The strongest and more valiant of the village’s young men would begin, around this time, to prepare for the competitions which always took place during the festivities. The competitions consisted of:
§ “Pignatte” (a type of pot), sack races, the “cuccagna” tree (the tree of abundance) and donkey races.
§ The “carrette” (handcarts). These were personally built by each participant, they consisted of a well shaped slab of wood, to which a well stuffed cushion for seating was added, as well as wooden wheels (made by a good carpenter), ball bearings were added to the wheels before they were attached to the axles (the posterior axle was fixed, the anterior axle rotated on a central pivot, the whole contraption was manoeuvred round corners by using reins), brakes were not usually applied, to slow down one used one’s feet, with a certain ability, and at the finish line the cart was stopped by a load of sand.
During the days before the festivities, the traffic wardens allowed training competitions (the course ran from the “Piano Baglio” to “Piazza Seggio”), but once the real competition was over it was no longer possible to parade with the handcarts. They were put into a deposit until the next year or used at other times by pulling it by its reins, in order to transport sacks or heavy luggage.
For technical reasons, this competition took place the day before the festivities; only the Caulonians could compete because that was the only way to keep the streets clear enough for the handcarts to race through. On the next day (Friday) the streets and squares would begin to fill up with various kinds of pedlars coming from the furthest villages. The livestock fair also took place during these days (farmers, then, could not do without donkeys), pigs were slaughtered, and their meat was consumed during the days surrounding the Festivities.
The church was sumptuously decorated, the streets of the village were brightly and beautifully lit (as still happens today), and two stages were set up (one in “Piazza Seggio” and the other in “Piazza Mese”) so that the bands and orchestras could perform. The central square was always packed out so that it was difficult even just to move on the festive days of Saturday and Sunday.
The October festivity is always organised for the third Sunday, even if the day doesn’t happen to be the twenty-first. The entire population, decked out in new clothes, would walk around the village to buy some toys, dried fruit, regional specialities or to test their luck at the three cards table or at the dice. The many foreigners (from seaside resorts such as Roccella Ionica) would be intent on negotiating the price of and acquiring provisions for the winter such as fruit, oil, pulses, wheat and flour.
After the procession, there would be a fireworks display and within two or three hours the square would be empty. So it is with today’s Feast of Saint Hilarion in Adelaide that these traditions are preserved and celebrated.