A chance election as bishop

By Tony Staley

Donatus was just passing through town at the right moment

There’s an old saying about being in the right place at the right time. That describes St. Donatus, a ninth century bishop honored in both Ireland and Italy.

Donatus was born to noble parents, probably near Galway. He was educated at monastic school and became a priest and professor.

Eventually, he and a companion made a pilgrimage to Rome. They landed in France with one or two books, some relics and a few personal items. They stayed at monasteries or begged for food and shelter.

On the return trip, Donatus arrived at Fiesole, a town northeast of Florence, on the same day a new bishop was being selected. The people were in the cathedral praying to make a wise choice.

St. Donatus


When: died c. 876

Where: Fiesole, Italy

What: Bishop

Feast: Oct. 22

When Donatus entered, the bells spontaneously began ringing and the candles lit. The people believed God meant this stranger to be their bishop. They elected him, although some said it’s possible no one local wanted the position because the feudal lords had drowned the previous bishop.

The role of bishops has changed in 1,300 years. Donatus not only battled sin, he was also a military leader, organizing armies to lead two expeditions against the Saracens (Muslims).

He was an advisor to Emperor Louis and Frankish King Lothair I. He judged a disagreement between the bishops of Arezzo and Siena. In 862, he was at the Council of Rome, called after Archbishop John of Ravenna refused to submit to papal authority.

Donatus also found time to write, including biographies — one in prose, the other in poetry — of St. Brigid, a poem praising Ireland and his own epitaph. The Dominicans in Rome have one of his handwritten manuscripts.

He supported monasteries and, in 852, founded a church and a hospice at Piacenza dedicated to St. Brigid for Irish pilgrims. One of Donatus’ last acts was convincing King Charles the Bald to grant the bishops of Fiesole independence that let them levy taxes and administer their own laws.

His relics are in the cathedral at Fiesole.

Sources: “Catholic Encyclopedia”; catholicireland.net; catholic.org; “Dictionary of Saints”; katolsk.no; libraryireland.com; saintpatrickdc.org; saints.sqpn.com; wikipedia.org.