Saint of the Day – 14 April – St Benezet the Bridge Builder (c 1163-1184) Shepherd, Mystic, miracle-worker, Founder of the Fratres Pontifices – the Bridge-Building Brotherhood. St Benezet is also known as Benezet of Hermillon, Benedict, Bennet, Benet, Benoit, Little Benedict the Bridge Builder. Born in c 1163 at Hermillon, Savoy, France and died in 1184. Patronages – Avignon, bachelors, bridge-builders. His body is incorrupt.
St Benezet, also known as Little Benedict the Bridge Builder, was born somewhere in the countryside of eastern or northeastern France. As he grew up he tended his mother’s sheep. Though uneducated and unskilled, gentle Benedict was a quiet, devout youth, thoughtful of others.
One day in 1177, while the sun was in eclipse, Benezet heard a voice, he believed was Jesus, commanding him three times to go to Avignon, where the Rhone current was especially swift and to build a bridge there. He was also told that angels would watch over his flocks in his absence.
He obeyed the Divine order, without delay and reported immediately to the Bishop of Avignon. Naturally, the Bishop was hesitant about accepting the word of the frail teenager. But little Benezet lifted a massive stone to begin the work and announced that it would be the start of the foundation. This would become the Pont Saint-Bénézet. Thus he succeeded in convincing the Bishop that the construction of the bridge would be an act of true Christian charity. Permission was granted and the youth set about his task. According to the legend, there were shouts of “Miracle! Miracle!” when Bénézet had lifted and laid that first huge stone. Eighteen miracles occurred in total during the project – the blind had their vision restored, the deaf could hear again, cripples could walk and hunchbacks had their backs straightened.
For the next seven years Benedict worked hard on the project and around 1181 he won support for his project from wealthy sponsors who formed themselves into a Bridge Brotherhood to fund its construction. This was a religious association active during the 12th and 13th centuries and begun in Avignon but by it’s inspiration, it spread across Europe and whose purpose was building bridges, especially to assist pilgrims. It was customary for a bishop to grant indulgences to those who, by money or labour, contributed to the construction of a bridge. They also maintained and/or built hospices at the chief fords of the principal rivers, besides building bridges and looking after ferries. The Brotherhood consisted of three branches– knights, clergy and artisans, where the knights usually had contributed most of the funds and were sometimes called donati, the clergy were usually monks who represented the church and the artisans were the workers who actually built the bridges. Sisters are sometimes mentioned as belonging to the same association. In addition to the construction of bridges, the brotherhood often attended to the lodging and care of pilgrims and travellers and the collection of alms, in this area, the sisters were most active.
In 1184, sadly, young Benezet died, some four years before the great stone bridge at Avignon was completed. The wonders that occurred during the bridge’s erection and the miracles wrought at the Bridge Builder’s tomb convinced the people of Avignon that the young man was a Saint and he was referred to as such as early at 1237. They, therefore, built a Chapel on the “Bridge of St Benezet” to enshrine his relics . There the body was venerated until 1669, when floodwaters carried away a large segment of the bridge. His remains were rescued from the flood and on examination, were found to be incorrupt. Now they repose in the local church of St Didier.
Understandably, bridge builders adopted little Benedict as their Patron Saint. The remains of the bridge still remain a pilgrimage site. Below are artworks and images showing the bride through the ages. The last shows it as it is today, only about half is left and that half if filled with pilgrims.
St Benezet’s bridge has another claim to fame – it achieved worldwide fame through its commemoration by the song “Sur le Pont d’Avignon” (“On the Bridge of Avignon”).
One can build in a figurative as well as a literal sense. Bishops, the pope in particular, are often called “pontiffs”, a title derived from the Latin word for “builder of bridges”. Building bridges between God and mankind is their special calling. Our Lord Himself was a “pontiff” in the sense that He made his Cross a bridge, on which souls could enter heaven. The beatitude “Blessed are the peacemakers” promises heaven to those who work for reconciliation, that is, “build bridges”.
Some persons labour to raise walls, or “iron curtains” to divide mankind. Others labour to tear down the walls that divide, straighten the paths that connect, bridge the crevices that separate people. Surely they come close to fulfilling the great commandment to love our neighbour as oneself. St Benezet was one such. He promoted the unity of God’s children. Little St Benezet, Pray for us!