St Peter of Alcántara (-1562)
Celebrated: 19 Oct (Shrewsbury)
St Peter of Alcántara was a 16th century Spanish Franciscan of the Stricter Observance and a confessor and spiritual director of St Teresa of Avila. He was chosen as patron of Shrewsbury Cathedral by Bertram, the 17th Earl of Shrewsbury, who paid for the building of the cathedral but died aged 23 two months before it was opened in 1856. A Catholic, the Earl had a great devotion to the saint.
Peter Garavita was born at Alcántara, a small town in the province of Estremadura in 1499 and decided to join the Franciscans at the age of 16 shortly after he was sent to university in Salamanca by his stepfather.
He was a man of remarkable austerity and poverty who travelled throughout Spain preaching the Gospel to the poor. He wrote a Treatise on Prayer and Meditation which was considered a masterpiece by St Teresa, St Francis de Sales and Louis of Granada.
St Peter was ordained to the priesthood in 1524 and in 1538 was made minister provincial of the Franciscan province of St Gabriel of Estremadura but resigned when his plans to enforce severe rules among the friars were opposed.
He then left for Portugal where he built his first hermitage on Arabida, a barren mountain on the mouth of the River Tagus opposite Lisbon, where he attracted followers – the Alcantarines – who were distinguished by their ascetic practices, never wearing shoes, eating meat or drinking wine. In 1554 St Peter returned to Spain to establish a friary at Pedrosa using a stricter form of the Franciscan Rule, insisting, for instance, that every cell should be no more than 7ft long.
Two years before his death he arrived in Avila on a visitation where he was introduced to St Teresa. He supported her case that her visions and prayer were from God and that she was not afflicted by delusions caused by an evil spirit.
It is from St Teresa’s autobiography that the life of St Peter and his spiritual gifts are more thoroughly understood. The saint said she saw for herself his great raptures and transports of divine love when he was in prayer. She also marvelled at his austerity, telling of how he would deliberately leave the window and door of his cell open during snaps of cold weather and how he would deny himself sleep as a form of bodily mortification and penance, a practice which has led him to become regarded as the patron saint of night watchmen.
St Peter was credited as doing more than anyone else in helping St Teresa in her historical reforms of the Carmelite order. Seized by a mortal illness, he died in 1562 while kneeling in prayer in the convent of Arenas.