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31 August 1240: Death of the patron saint of childbirth and midwives

17th century depiction of the canonisation of Ramón Nonato.
17th century depiction of the canonisation of Ramón Nonato. / SUR
  • Ramón Nonato, a Spanish priest who was canonised in 1657, died on route to Rome after being appointed Cardinal Deacon of Sant'Eustachio by Pope Gregory IX

Saint Ramón Nonato, a Spanish priest who was canonised in 1657, died on route to Rome on 31 August 1240, after being appointed Cardinal Deacon of Sant'Eustachio by Pope Gregory IX. He is the patron saint of childbirth, midwives, pregnant women and priests defending the confidentiality of confession.

According to the tradition of the Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mercy, Ramón Nonato was born in the village of Portell in Catalonia in 1204. His early life is somewhat confusing and there are many differing versions, but the most accepted is that he was the son of a local aristocrat.

His name - Nonnatus in Latin - means 'not born' and refers to the nature of his own birth. Born by caesarean section, which resulted in the death of his mother, his father planned his son a career at the royal court of the Kingdom of Aragon. However, Ramón was drawn to religion, which angered his father, who sent him to work on one of the family's farms. Ramón spent his childhood tending sheep, although he would often pray at a nearby country chapel. His father eventually abandoned hopes for his son's social advancement.

He later gave permission for Ramón to take the habit with the Order of Mercedarian monks in Barcelona, an order founded to ransom Christian captives from the Moors. The youngster was trained by Pedro Nolasco, the founder of the order, and was ordained in 1222. Ramón made such progress that he was soon considered worthy to succeed his master in the office of ransomer.

His first assignment was to secure the release of 140 Christians from slavery in Valencia, after which, he went to North Africa, where he was able to ransom another 250 captives in Algiers. However, while in Tunis his money ran out and - in keeping with the fourth vow taken by members of the Order - he was forced to surrender himself to ensure the release of 28 Christian hostages.

He was tortured and sentenced to be impaled when the governor learned that he had converted several Mohammedans, but he escaped the death sentence because of the ransom he would fetch. Legend states that his captors bore a hole through his lips with a hot iron and padlocked his mouth to prevent him from preaching.

He was ransomed eight months later by Pedro Nolasco and on his return to Barcelona in 1239, he was appointed cardinal by the Pope, but died at Cardona the following year while on the way to Rome. According to legend, his father, the local friars and the townsfolk all claimed his body. To resolve the dispute, the priest's body was tied to a blind mule, which was then let loose. The mule is said to have taken the body to the small chapel where Ramón had prayed as a youngster and it was here that he was laid to rest.

Many miracles were attributed to Ramón Nonato before and after his death and he was canonised by Pope Alexandra VII in 1657. His feast day is celebrated on August 31.