Hermit, Patron of prisoners
( Second half of the Sixth Century)
Saint Leonard was born towards the end of the fifth century of illustrious parents, residing in the part of the province of Gaul which was then beginning to be called France. Several historians believe that with his brother Saint Lifard, his origins can be traced to the castle of Vendome in the region of Orleans. He belonged to the nation of the Franks, and at the court of Clovis his relatives were dignitaries, baptized at the same time as the king by Saint Remi. That monarch himself stood as sponsor in Baptism for this child of predilection.
As Leonard grew he was so moved by the holy examples of the bishop of Rheims that he renounced the world in order to lead a more perfect life. When Saint Remi had trained Leonard in virtue and conferred on him the tonsure, he began to exercise his charity on behalf of prisoners. Clovis, in response to a prayer of Saint Remi, had already issued an edict that prisoners in Rheims might be freed whenever his royal highness would pass through that city. Leonard asked the kind monarch to grant him personally the right to liberate prisoners whom he would find worthy of it, any time at all.
The reputation of Saint Leonard's goodness and sanctity soon spread, and the sick came to him for healing and alms. He did not fail to teach them also the value of Christian patience and to console them by the divine doctrine. The king desired to attach him permanently to his court, but Saint Leonard, in a discourse brilliant by its humility, replied that he preferred to live in the obscurity Christ had chosen for Himself for so many years, and he retired to a monastery. Saint Maximin, its abbot, saw to it that he was ordained a deacon, which office he accepted out of obedience, but he did not aspire to any additional ecclesiastical dignities. He recognized that his role was not to remain always in the monastery, and departed to preach to the pagans of the province of Limoges. He found on a nearby mountain a forested solitude where he decided to remain, and there he built a cell of branches and considered himself rich in the possession of God, joyous in his freedom to devote himself to meditation, prayer and mortification.
He continued to obtain miracles when solicited by the suffering members of Jesus Christ. The spouse of a king living nearby had a successful delivery of a child by his prayers, when her very life was despaired of; and the king in gratitude gave him a part of the forest to dispose of as he wished. He then built an oratory to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Two disciples joined him in this sanctuary, continuing to pray without interruption when their master went on pilgrimage to the tombs of the Saints.
Soon the sick came to Saint Leonard here also, and prisoners who invoked him from their cells saw their chains break before their eyes. Many came to him afterwards, bringing their heavy chains and irons to offer them in homage. A considerable number wished to remain with him, and he often gave them part of his vast forest to clear and make ready for the labors of the fields, that they might have the means to live an honest life. He continued to be their guardian and father and preached the religion of our Saviour to them; and those who had once been malefactors were transformed by prayer and labor.
Seven families of persons who were his relatives in the north heard of his reputation and decided to come to him and remain with him. He was surprised but encouraged their good resolutions, saying: A fare of dry bread, eaten in the joy of a pure conscience, is of more worth than a house abundantly furnished, where quarrels and divisions prevail. After increasing in holiness until his last days, he died on the 6th of November in the oratory he had dedicated to Our Lady, after having himself transported there, sometime during the second half of the sixth century. Miracles on behalf of prisoners and the sick followed, as they had preceded, his death. The cult of Saint Leonard has remained extremely popular in France ever since; and throughout all of Europe churches and monasteries have been placed under his invocation.
Les Petits Bollandistes: Vies des Saints, by Msgr. Paul Guérin (Bloud et Barral: Paris, 1882), Vol. 13