27 August: St. Monica, widow – her tomb

This is the chapel in the church of St. Augustine in Rome (literally across the street from my back door) where the mortal remains of St. Monica (+387), the mother of Augustine of Hippo now rest. 

To the right is a shot of the chapel on the day a couple years ago when the bones of of St. were brought from their resting place in Pavia (near Milan) to Rome. For the first time since 387, son and mother were reunited.

How did St. Monica’s tomb wind up here? 

Here is an excerpt from an article I wrote for Inside the Vatican (December 2004) on the abovementioned event.  I used the alternate (and more accurate Punic) spelling of the saint’s name – "Monnica" (emphasis not in the original):

Most visitors to the Eternal City find it puzzling and wondrous that Monnica’s remains would be in Rome and even more so that Augustine’s should be in northern Italy, or that we have them at all.  How did this come to pass?  Monnica died at age 56 of a malarial fever at Ostia, Rome’s port city, not far from where modern Rome’s port, DaVinci airport, is situated.  After Augustine’s baptism in 386 by Milan’s bishop St. Ambrose (+ AD 397), Monnica and Augustine together with his brother Navigius, Adeodatus the future bishop’s son by his concubine of many years whom Monnica had forced Augustine to put aside, and friends Nebridius, Alypius and the former Imperial secret service agent (agens in rebus) Evodius were all waiting at Ostia to return home to Africa by ship.  They were stuck there for some time because the port was blockaded during a period of civil strife.  As she lay dying near Rome, Monnica told Augustine (conf. 9): “Lay this body anywhere, let not the care for it trouble you at all. This only I ask, that you will remember me at the Lord’s altar, wherever you be.”  She was buried there in Ostia.  In the 6th century she was moved to a little church named for St. Aurea, an early martyr of the city, and there she remained until 1430 when her remains were translated by Pope Martin V to the Roman Basilica of St. Augustine built in 1420 by the famous Guillaume Card. D’Estouteville of Rouen, then Camerlengo under Pope Sixtus IV.  As fate or God’s directing have would have it, in December 1945, some children were digging a hole in the courtyard of the little church of St. Aurea next to the ruins of ancient Ostia.  They wanted to put up a basketball hoop, probably having been taught the exciting new game – so different from soccer – by American GIs.  While digging they discovered the broken marble epitaph which had marked Monnica’s ancient grave.  Scholars were able to authenticate the inscription, the text of which had been preserved in a medieval manuscript.  The epitaph had been composed during Augustine’s lifetime by no less then a former Consul of AD 408 and resident at Ostia, Anicius Auchenius Bassus, perhaps Augustine’s host during their sojourn.  It is possible that Anicius Bassus placed the epitaph there after 410 which saw the ravages of Alaric the Visigoth and the sacking of Rome and its environs.  One can almost feel behind these traces of ancient evidence Augustine’s plea to his old friend sent by letter from the port of Hippo Regius over the waves to Ostia.  Hearing of the devastation to the area, far more shocking to the ancients than the events of 11 September were for us, did Augustine, now a renowned bishop, ask his old friend to tend the grave of the mother whom he had so loved and who in her time had wept for her son’s sins and rejoiced in his conversion?

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About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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5 Responses to 27 August: St. Monica, widow – her tomb

  1. RichR says:

    Fr Z,

    Is this altar actually used? Beautiful!

  2. Chickadee says:

    Dear Father,

    I was brought back to the Faith by Augustine’s “Confessions” and have been praying for my husband to come into the Church for over 20 years. And here you are just feet from the mortal remains of Monica!

    Next time you touch her reliquary, will you please ask her to remember “Mister?”

    Thank you for your blog.

  3. Sid Cundiff says:

    I know many a priest who is a priest because of his mother.

  4. Christopher says:

    Hi, Chickadee,
    I was in the church of San Agostino this morning, and stopped at the tomb of St. Monica to remember your intentions. I hope you will keep us in your prayers as well. God bless!

  5. Ruperto B. Esteban Sr. says:

    Just come across while researching for an article am preparing for the souvenir program of the St. Monica Parish Fiesta but look what I found! The tomb of St. Monica! Thank God and to you, Fr. Z. Just go on.
    By the way, please pray fo me and my Family, and for the Legion of Mary here in our parish in Angat, Bulacan in the Philippines.