Deer hunting season is upon us. Whether it’s bow season — Sept. 12 through Jan. 3 in Wisconsin — or deer gun season coming up — Nov. 21 to 29 — taking to the woods is a tradition going back generations.
When one talks about patron saints of hunters, two names come up most often: St. Eustace (also called Eustáchius) and St. Hubert (also called Hubertus). Their stories are similar and there is speculation that the life of the earlier of the two was more a pious story than the true tale of a true person.
However, St. Eustace is listed as a saint and, in fact, is one of the 14 Holy Helpers (a list which includes St. Christopher and St. Blaise). Eustace was born a Roman and became a very successful general under the Emperor Trajan in the second century. He was known as Placidus before his conversion to Christianity, and that conversion is where the hunting story comes in.
One day, Placidus went hunting in Tivoli, northeast of Rome. He was tracking a hart (a red male deer) when the creature turned back on its pursuer and Placidus saw a crucifix between its antlers. Placidus was so moved that he converted to Christianity and had himself and his family baptized. He took the name of Eustace, which means “fruitful” or “fortunate.”
Eustace was not too fortunate right away and a series of calamities befell him and his family. Things turned around for a while when the emperor had need of his military skills. However, when the next emperor — Hadrian — came to power, Eustace and his family became martyrs for the faith. His feast day is Sept. 20.
About 500 years later, St. Hubert was born in France. He was a member of the nobility and grew up enjoying the good life. He loved to hunt and, after his wife died in childbirth, Hubert focused on nothing but hunting. One Good Friday, while pursuing a great stag instead of being in church, the large deer turned on him — in much the way that Eustace encountered his hart. Like Eustace, a glowing crucifix appeared between the animal’s antlers.
Hubert also heard a voice, warning him to change his ways and to lead a holy life, or else he would “quickly go down to hell.” He was further instructed to seek out Lambert, the bishop of the Diocese of Maastrict, to find out what more God wanted of him.
Hubert (called Hubertus in German) reformed his life, turned all his land and inheritance over to his younger brother — whom he made guardian of his son, Floribert. Hubert gave away all his wealth and became a priest.
He eventually succeeded Lambert and moved to the see city of Liège, becoming the first Bishop of Liège. He is known as the “Apostle of the Ardennes,” a region in Belgium and Luxemburg that included the city of Liège. Hubert died in 727 or 728, near Brussels. He is not only the patron saint of hunters, but also mathematicians, opticians and metalworkers, and was often called upon to protect people (and animals) from rabies.
Related to the rabies issue is a common tool found in many European churches in the Middle Ages and even up to the last century: St. Hubert’s Key (Hubertusschlüssel). An example can be found in the Science Museum of London and it looks like a nail with a decorated head. It was used to cauterize animal bites with the idea of preventing the onset of rabies. The keys were sometimes kept by the local priest.
St. Hubert’s emblem — the stag with a cross between its antlers — can today be found on bottles of the famous Jägermeister alcoholic beverage. Its first distiller was an avid hunter and Jägermeister — a German word meaning “hunt master” — had been a term for hunters, woodsmen and gamekeepers for centuries. It also became a title used by the German forestry administration in 1934. The beverage Jagermeister dates to 1935.
The popularity of St. Hubert — and his emblem — among hunters is not only about hunting skills, but also for good sportsmanship. In 1695, he became the patron of the Order of St. Hubertus, now the International Order of St. Hubert (IOSH), in what was then the Kingdom of Bohemia. The late 17th and early 18th centuries were a time of revived interest in knighthood and chivalry, and hunting was looked upon as a good preparation for a gentleman who might need to take part in warfare.
One of the order’s original members was Charles II of Bohemia, who later became the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles VI. The motto of the IOSH is “Deum Diligite Animalia Diligentes” or “Honoring God by Honoring His Creatures.”
In 1938, the honor of the IOSH came to the forefront when the Nazis demanded, and were refused, membership in the order. Hitler retaliated by banning the order. The IOSH’s history also notes that when Hermann Goering, Hitler’s second-in-command, was refused membership, he had the order’s Grand Prior executed. Goering had taken the title of Germany’s Reichsjägermeister (Imperial gamekeeper) in 1935.
After World War II ended, the IOSH said, its hunters were asked to help provide winter food for Austrians. Col. Halvor Ekorn, a member of the IOSH, was assigned to the headquarters of U.S. Forces in Austria at the time. Today, a descendant of Charles VI (who was a Hapsburg) is Grand Master of the IOSH, and there are Grand Priories in Spain, Portugal, Mexico, Italy, Hungary, Luxemburg and the United States.
St. Hubert’s feast day is Nov. 3. He left a legacy for hunters and sportsman, as well church leaders. As Sam Guzman of Milwaukee, author of the “Catholic Gentleman” blog notes, “St. Hubert is known as one of the first to promote ethical hunting practices, encouraging hunters to avoid cruelty and treat animals with respect and dignity as God’s creatures.”
In this year of Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si’, St. Hubert and St. Eustace are two examples of people whose hearts were turned from mastering creation to caring for it.
Sources: IOSH-US.com; “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; catholicgentleman.net; romanchristendomblogspot.com; britishmuseum.org; CatholicSaints.info; sciencemuseum.org.uk; catholiconline.com.