Benedict Joseph Labre is the patron saint of the homeless, the cast-off people of society, the wandering schizophrenics and bag-ladies, and in general of those who are so down on their luck that they cannot find a place to call home.
Born in a French village in 1748, Benedict Joseph Labre enjoyed a loving family life as a child, but always felt called to the service of God. When he was twelve, he went to live with his uncle, a priest, who gave him an excellent education and encouraged Benedict’s desire to enter the monastery. When his uncle died while caring for the sick during a violent epidemic, Benedict felt that it was time for him to find a monastic order to join.
But things didn’t work out this way. Although Benedict Joseph Labre tried to become a monk in several established foundations in France, it wasn’t a good fit. In his late teens and increasingly frustrated with the circumstances that seemed to keep him from fulfilling what he was sure was God’s will, he left France for Italy. It was here, in the city of Rome, that he found the answer to his search: he would become a homeless mendicant living off the street, a beggar who had no fixed home; in doing so, he believed, he would attain a position close to God.
Labre chose to do without every material thing except a suit of ragged clothes and a few holy books, which he carried with him and from which he daily read. He ate what he could gather from other people’s garbage; sometimes kind people would give him food. Whatever he got he would share with other homeless people.
Living in this way, he first made pilgrimages to some of Europe’s most holy shrines, including Assisi and Santiago de Compostela. Then, he settled into regular residency in the ruins of the Colosseum at Rome, becoming a familiar sight to the Romans as he carried out his daily devotions. But he had never enjoyed robust health, and the austerities through which he put himself eventually took their toll. He died in 1783, at the age of 35. Soon after his death, miraculous medical cures began to occur, suggesting that he was responding to the prayers of the sick. The evidence from these cures eventually led to his canonization as Saint Benedict Joseph Labre.