We recently travelled to Santa Barbara to go camping at the zoo https://www.sbzoo.org/learn/explore-trips/safari-sleepovers/). (Yes – it’s actually a thing.) Since we had some time before camping, we headed over to the Santa Barbara Mission.
Santa Barbara Mission is actually a working Catholic Church, not just a museum, but since the next service was hours away we decided to pay the admission to get a self guided tour of the place.
I didn’t expect the grounds to be so extensive. The tour included rooms dedicated to Chumash life at the time of the mission’s founding, a room dedicated to the Lone Woman of San Nicholas Island (Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell was an imagining of her life on the island), gardens, church treasures, and a cemetery.
As we wandered the cemetery, I was delighted to find the gravesite of Sister Vincentia Bermudes, and excitedly thought to myself – Someone’s been granting favors! As you can see in the photo, there were coins all over her headstone and the tree stump near her grave.
What has this simple nun been doing that deserved such gratitude? In a cemetery filled with the monuments of many wealthy families, why does this Daughter of Charity have a fairly new stone placed so prominently in the courtyard?
She was on my mind the entire weekend. When I had a chance I looked her up only to find some photos on genealogy websites and this post (http://www.jenniferlhotes.com/tag/sister-vincentia-bermudes/) by Jennifer L. Hotes – a traveller who was as mystified as I was.
I called the Mission to see if they had any additional information on her, and the lady that answered was surprised to hear that her stone had offerings on it. She looked her up in her records and noted that she was a Daughter of Charity – an order that was founded by St. Vincent dePaul and St. Louise deMarillac. They do extensive work helping women and children in the Santa Barbara area.
A little research led me to the website of the Daughters of Charity in Santa Barbara where they write of their founding that “the Daughters of Charity sent two young Sisters from Maryland who arrived by steamship on January 5, 1858.” (https://www.stvincents-sb.org/about-us/#:~:text=)
Sister Vincentia Bermudes died in 1863, at 20 years old, according to her gravestone. If she was one of the two brave Sisters that first arrived from Maryland she would have have been just 15 years old. It’s quite possible that she is one of the two who first arrived and ended up establishing some of the first schools and orphanages of the area. I have contacted the order to find more information about Sister Vincentia, but have not yet heard back from them.
In my research, I’ve also discovered that her stone was replaced sometime between 2006 and 2011. In photos of her headstone prior to 2017, no monetary offerings were seen. The practice of visitors leaving offerings seems to be a fairly recent one.
Why the offerings?
It’s not unusual for Catholics to make offerings to Saints for granting favors. In my upbringing, if you needed St. Anthony’s help finding a lost item, you’d promise a donation to the poor to be given once that item was found.
There’s also the custom of asking the spirits of holy and well-regarded priests, sisters, and nuns for favors to be granted with the promise of spreading the word of their help. Some parishes have campaigns for some of their revered dead to become canonized Saints. Granting favors and miracles is part of the criteria for Catholic Sainthood.
There doesn’t seem to be an organized effort for Sister Vincentia Bermudes’s sainthood. At least not yet.
My theory is that someone a few years ago prayed for her help, received it, and left an offering. Perhaps, she told others who were also helped and left offerings. Visitors then added their own coins, accompanied with wishes and prayers for good luck. From there the practice started, and hopefully it will grow. We can use all of the help we get.
As for me, I didn’t leave an offering when I was there. I didn’t have a request then, but I do now and the request is that I uncover more historical information about her. We’ll see what happens.
This week happens to be Catholic Sisters Week. I have a soft spot for Sisters. I’m named after one who was a dear family friend. I know that they can be scary, but as a child having been rolled around a convent on a dining cart with as many butter cookies that can fit on my fingers I can assure you that they are as human as the rest of us. I’m comforted to know that as they helped others in life, they also help others from the afterlife / spirit world / imaginal.