Stories of the Saints - Grace Hall

The Good Almoner's Hat

Being a letter to Maria Lopez, in the hamlet of Cinco Cantonadas, from her son, at the Archiepiscopal Palace in Valencia.

The 14th day of December, in the year of our Lord 1545


As soon as Sebastian, who tells me that he is to pass through our village on his way to Valladolid, shall give thee this letter from thy nino, I know well that thou wilt hasten with it held close to thy heart to the house of Padre Emilio, that he may read it to thee. I here, therefore, express my thanks to the reverend Padre and my greetings and all good wishes for his welfare—and desire him to be assured that for him as well as for thee this letter is destined.

And thou, little mother, how is it with thee? Hast thou wondered why thou didst not for so long have word of thy son?

Ah—didst thou but know how full and how engrossing is the life in this great city! And how many the tasks that fill my days in the service of my beloved master, thou wouldst not marvel that the time has been long before leisure permits me to write thee. Add to this the difficulty in finding a messenger, and thou wilt forgive. But now the opportunity offers, and I take the hour even from my duties.

Madre mia—what grandeur and what festivities when we first arrived in this city! I was still bewildered with the surprise of the honour done me by our adored friend and patron, the Senorito Thomas (for so I know thou dost in thy heart ever think of him—even as I do—though he has become a personage so high in honours and of so wide renown), that in the first days I could scarce take account of what was passing round me. That he should have chosen me among all to serve and follow him thither! But now all things have become customary and I can see them as they are.

I will not tell thee of the magnificent ceremony by which my master was ordained Archbishop in the great Cathedral. I will reserve all that until we meet. But mighty personages were there—none less than our Emperor Carlos IV, and Don Felipe his son, and many noble dignitaries of the Church. And I will say with pride that my master is dear to the heart of our Emperor, whose will it was that he be made Archbishop, even though he himself would far rather have remained Prior in Salamanca to the end.

He is still the same as he was of yore, modest and humble in mind and deportment. Not all the heaped honours and fortunes of the world could change him. He is still the same as when, but a little lad, he parted his garments on that cold day in January between the four of us ragged urchins who shivered in the Square, Jose and Manuel, Carlos and I. And his cloak and cap he gave to me—thou dost remember—and the next day thou didst bid me take back the cloak, and for that his mother, Donna Lucia Martinez of blessed memory, did us all those great benefits, the results of which are that I am here at this moment, and writing to thee with my own hand, when I might otherwise have remained ragged and untaught.

And the cap he gave me on that day I know thou dost still treasure. The cap which shaded and protected the most dear and beloved head that earth has ever seen! Padre Emilio must forgive me if this is idolatry—it is my love that speaks.

But I was telling thee of the humility which in this great good man is so boundless that there are times when I—a sinner—am almost driven to impatience by it. By it and by the generosity which knows no limit, and which results in want—yea—Mother, actual need for him—my saintly master. Still—what should one look for in the son of such parents? When father and mother vie with each other in good deeds, distributing food among the poor in times of want, giving them seed for their fields in time of plenty, lending money to the needy out of their none too plentiful store and without thought of usury. . . . And yet—I believe that had his parents been the last among creatures, this most charitable of men must still have been the benefactor of all.

When we left Salamanca to come here, I could have wished that he had thought well of purchasing some fresh raiment wherewith to make a good appearance when he arrived to take on his new honours, fine apparel to set off the dignity of his pale and delicate features, to enhance the lustre of his dark eyes—(What do I say! I babble like a foolish girl!) But no . . . he would not hear of it. He came clad in his old cassock. Of small avail was it to brush and clean it as best I might, it still was worn and discoloured. Yet he felt it sufficient for his wants.

And then his hat! Oh, Madre mia!  It was his hat especially which gave me sharp distress. It was the same, the very same, that Don Alphonso Garcia, his father, gave him when the Senorito Thomas left home to go take the habit and vows of the Hermits of St Austin in Salamanca.

Alas—that hat! In vain I remonstrated with him. With all of us who knew him it mattered not at all what he should choose to set upon his venerated head. But in Valencia, where he was about to appear among the proud and the mighty, would he not be misjudged, appearing in such headgear? And he pensively examined the hat I dared to deride to him, and then with a smile so seraphic that when one sees it one thinks only of heaven, he said: "What ails the hat? It is good—I see in it no holes. Must I cast it off when it has been my friend for so many seasons, shielded my head from sun and wind and rain so faithfully? Nay—I will wear this hat!"

But, Madre, this was not all.

His poverty when we arrived was so visible that I saw, when I attended him in public and at gatherings, that many remarked upon it—prelates clad in silks and velvets, covered with furs and with gems. Not only were their eyes and their countenances expressive of their thoughts, but some behind their hands and behind my master's back spoke their surprise—and I fear in derision—which made the blood rush to my brain.

As a result, however, the Canons of the Cathedral collected and presented him with a purse, an ample purse of 4000 crowns wherewith to purchase an outfit becoming to one of his exalted station.

I smile awry when I remember my joy at that event. A joy doomed to short life, for my master had no sooner received and thanked its donors for the gift than he called to me: "Quick, be off to the hospital where we went to visit the sick on Friday. Quickly go—and give this sum to the almoner."

"Alas, my Father!" I cried, "and your equipment I"

"I need none," he replied.

"A cassock and a warm cloak," I pleaded.

"The old ones will do."

"But the hat! A new hat, I conjure you!"

To that he made no answer. He only smiled like the angels, and with a gesture dismissed me.

And that is the way it is, Madre mia. So it is with the good—they are also the strong. And they carry their resolutions to the end, when you and I falter and halt by the way. My master is mild and gentle as the lamb, but when I am tried by his obduracy in denying himself not alone the commodities but the very necessities of life, Satan tempts me to call his resistance to my entreaties by the name of the stubbornness of the mule.

God forgive me—this is blasphemy! For if ever there lived one who deserved to be canonized a Saint on earth and in heaven it is my master, and, hear my prophecy, the world of men will yet know him as St Thomas de Villanueva, or perhaps—the Good Almoner, as he is already lovingly named by many.

Wonderful are the things he has so soon achieved since his accession to the rule of this see, for he immediately determined to devote two thirds of the great revenues to acts of charity. These he has planned and classified in a manner all his own, as you shall see: the poor, whom he loves as his own soul, nay, more, he has divided into six groups. First among these he places those whom he defines as the bashful poor, those who have seen better times, and with the self-respecting pride of their former station are ashamed to beg. His tenderness of the wounds dealt to these by ill fortune it were impossible to describe.

Next in order are the maidens whose need may force them into the path of temptation and shame.

Third come the poor debtors.

Fourth, the orphans and foundlings.

Fifth, the sick, the diseased, and infirm.

Thou seest, good Mother, how he has almost reversed the customary order of attention, and thou mayest divine the reason: are not the lame, the halt, and blind the care of all men? And do not orphans touch the heart of all good people? But who, before this, has had eyes to search out the claims of the shy and ashamed, of the helpless maidens and piteous debtors?

Lastly, he has set apart a sum for the strangers who come within Valencia's gates. The travellers who arrive from a distance and are unknown, who have no place wherein to lay their heads, nor the means to procure for themselves food. For them he has opened a kitchen, where travellers may come at all hours of the night or day; where all may be fed, and all claim a lodging for the night. Furthermore: on their departure, if so be their purses are empty, a gratuity is allowed to each, either to carry him farther on his journey, or to aid him in finding occupation if he remain.

Madre querida, I ask—is it not well done? And has not the Great God been good to me, thy son, that He has caused me to pass my days by the side and in the service of one so holy, that my heart which might otherwise have been hard and self-seeking is kept tender and warm by association with this beneficent man?

And now I have written at great length, concerning that which is near to my heart and present in every hour of my life, and have made no inquiries as to thee and all those at home.

But good Padre Emilio will perhaps write what thou shalt tell him, and that letter Sebastian will bring back to me in the spring, on his return from his long journey.

God have thee in His care.


I would add one little word: the hat of which I speak is even now upon the Archbishop's head. He has this morning gone to the prison, where through the gaoler he finds ways of relieving much pain and sorrow. The hat has now begun its twenty-seventh year of service.

Were it not cause for tears if it were not so droll?