Oct. 21 is a holiday here in the BVI. I did some research on why for the Limin’ Times this week. Here’s what I found (from the Oct. 20th Island Life column):
Who was this Ursula person, anyway?
Most readers will know that this Friday the 21st of October is a public holiday here in the beautiful BVI, but I suspect that not as many know why.
The short answer is that we’re celebrating the feast day of St. Ursula, the patron saint of the Virgin Islands. The longer answer goes way back in history, all the way back to the 4th century, when a basilica was built to honor the memory of a group of girls martyred at Cologne. Who were these girls? Why and how were they killed? I bet it’s a fascinating story, but the truth has been lost to history.
In the absence of facts, several legends have cropped up to fill the vacuum that is their story, including one about a Christian princess from Britain named Ursula who, while traveling with 11,000 maids and ladies-in-waiting, was ambushed and slaughtered by pagan Huns. The legend eventually led to Ursula being named a saint associated with England, the city of Cologne, teachers, education and holy death.
There is even an order of nuns named after her. The Ursulines, founded in the 1500s, are devoted to the education of young girls. Now you might ask how this particular martyr came to be connected with the VI. Blame Christopher Columbus, who evidently thought this cluster of islands was like the legendary saint and all her attendants, calling them Santa Úrsula y las Once Mil Vírgenes or las Virgenes, for short.
If you want a visual of St. Ursula (other than the circa 1440 Stefan Lochner painting pictured above), all you have to do is check out a BVI flag. The woman on the green field is St. Ursula carrying a lantern, and around her are 11 more lanterns to represent her 11,000 co-martyrs.
While those of us who are glad to have the opportunity to squeeze another beach day into our calendar can be glad that St. Ursula’s Day looks like it won’t be leaving the BVI calendar of public holidays any time soon, it’s interesting to note that we are probably the only place in the world that celebrates this saint with a day off. The Catholic Church removed her from its official calendar of saints in 1969 owing to a lack of historical evidence for the legendary martyr.