Each fall in Europe and some parts of Canada, special ceremonies and festivities are held to honor St. Hubert, the patron saint of hunters. The epicenter of his veneration is the town of St. Hubert in Belgium, which is near the Ardennes forest. Colorful festivities occur annually on and around November 3, St. Hubert’s birthday, drawing crowds of tens of thousands and more. Elsewhere in Europe, schools are closed on St. Hubert’s Day, churches and massive cathedrals conduct the Mass of Saint Hubert, where hunters and their dogs and falcons are brought into churches and cathedrals for blessings.
One noteworthy example of St. Hubert festivities in North America occurs in early September in Cap St. Ignace, Quebec, when the Mass of St. Hubert is said in the local church. Hunters, dressed in their hunting clothes, file into the church, bringing their dogs and guns to be blessed. The procession, including game wardens and the clergy, enters and exits the church under an archway of guns held aloft by hunters wearing camouflage and orange. After the service, other events are held in shooting trap and skeet, a parade, and a wild game dinner that invites all the community to come in to share the bounty of the wild.
Many US hunters, let alone the general public, have not heard of St. Hubert, so I’ll provide some background.
The Story of Saint Hubert
The eldest son of Bertrans, the Duke of Aquitaine, Hubert was born in 638 AD. A prince of the House of Aquitaine in France, when he was young Hubert enjoyed the “good life” of nobility, and most of all he loved hunting. One Good Friday, when he should have been in church, Hubert galloped off on horseback to hunt stag. His hounds cornered a large stag. As Hubert approached, suddenly he had a vision of a glowing crucifix appearing over the deer’s head. A voice spoke to him and said: “Hubert, unless thou turnest to the Lord, and leadest a holy life, thou shalt quickly go to hell.”
Hubert climbed down off his horse and begged forgiveness. The voice instructed him to seek guidance from Lambert, the Bishop of Maastricht. Not long after seeking out the Bishop, Hubert’s wife died in childbirth. Hubert soon entered the Abbey of Staveleot, became Lambert’s student, and became a priest, giving his belongings to charity and the care of his young son to his brother.
Lambert advised Hubert to make a pilgrimage to Rome in 705 AD. During Hubert’s absence, Lambert was murdered. Hubert was selected by the Pope to succeed his mentor as Bishop. Later Hubert built St. Peter’s Cathedral in Liege, Belgium, on the spot where Lambert had died, and he in turn became the patron of the city.
Hubert applied his passion for hunting to his faith, establishing Christianity in large sections of the Ardennes forest. He preached to many of the hunters and is said to have hunted and kept dogs all his life. Hubert is also said to have been blessed with miraculous powers to heal rabies, aided by a special white and gold silk stole that he said was given to him by the Blessed Virgin Mary. He also had a golden key, which was reputed to be a healing amulet.
Hubert died quietly on May 30, 727 AD with the words “Our father, who art in heaven…” on his lips. In 1744 he was canonized as a saint; the patron saint of hunting, trapping and butchers.
First buried in Luttich, Hubert’s body was later moved to the Andain monastery in the Ardennes, which today is known as St. Hubert’s Abbey. The location of the abbey and the Belgian town of Saint Hubert, are purported to be close to where Hubert saw the stag with the cross between his antlers.
Each November 3, Saint Hubert’s Day, all across France, Luxembourg, Germany and Belgium, thousands of people attend special masses and celebrations to honor Saint Hubert. During these festivities special blessings are said for the safety and success of hunters and the health of their animals–dogs are blessed for protection from diseases like rabies–and special religious music written for parforce hunting horns is performed (Grande Mess de Saint Hubert).
To many European hunters, making the pilgrimage to St. Hubert, Belgium, on Saint Hubert’s Day is like a Muslim making a pilgrimage to Mecca, a Jew praying at the Wailing Wall or a Christian visiting Jerusalem at Easter. For a US hunter, the only thing comparable is a visit to Aldo Leopold’s “shack” on the banks of the Wisconsin River in Baraboo, Wisconsin, where he penned A Sand County Almanac.
St. Hubert’s Day–a National Holiday in the US?
St. Patrick’s Day and St. Valentine’s Day have become commercial affairs with little meaning beyond green beer, greeting cards and flowers. Crass commercialization could happen to St. Hubert’s Day, but I am willing to take the chance.
I propose that honoring St. Hubert’s Day across North America would be a step in the right direction to help the general public understand and accept hunters and hunting. If you don’t develop pro-hunting programs that reach the general public, all other strategies to help hunting will be much less likely to be successful because, let’s face it camouflage comrades, hunters are a minority group–perhaps even an endangered species–existing because the general public allows them to exist. It also would promote ethical hunting, which is never a bad idea.
There are many ways to honor St. Hubert. Such pageantry solidifies the ethics, spirituality and community acceptance of hunting, and shows people that hunters are heroes, today, as they have been for thousands of years.
Happy (early) St. Hubert’s Day!
Photos of the St. Hubert’s Day celebration in Quebec are courtesy of Patrick Plante. Photos of St. Hubert’s Day celebration in Quebec are from The Sacred Art of Hunting by James A. Swan, Ph.D., Willow Creek Press, 2000, which is available through Amazon.com and all other bookstores.