The Church of St Anthony of Padua (of Lisbon in Lisbon)

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The Church of St Anthony of Lisbon, Igreja de Santo António de Lisboa, Lisbon, Portugal

When I was about seventeen, I briefly visited Padua in Italy, and visited the church of St Anthony.  I don’t really remember it, but I can still vividly recall the feeling of utter disgust when looking at the reliquaries displaying parts of his body.  I’d never seen anything quite like it before, and I couldn’t understand how a man, who is considered holy, could have been chopped up into so many pieces.  I found it very disrespectful and though I understand the principle of ‘spreading the holiness’, I still find my stomach dropping when I remember what happened to St Anthony’s body.

The Story of St Anthony

Little is known about St Anthony’s life that can be called ‘historically verifiable’, but it’s clear that he was born in 1195 and christened Fernando.  He was from a good family which expected him to have a prestigious ecclesiastical or bureaucratic career.  Unfortunately for them, Fernando chose a more intense sort of ecclesiastical life than they’d wanted.  At the age of 15, he went to the Augustinian Abbey of St Vincent, just outside Lisbon; the abbey was famous for being scholarly and it gave Fernando a chance to study away from the pressures of his family.

Only he hadn’t moved far enough away.  His family and friends would still visit him, and Fernando found it an unnecessary distraction.  He asked to be transferred to another abbey, and ended up in Coimbra.  There he completed his studies and was ordained into the priesthood at the age of 25.  His duty in the abbey was to look after visitors, and it was in this capacity that he first met Franciscans; five monks were passing through on their way to Morocco to evangelise amongst the Muslims.  Fernando was apparently impressed by their mission, and the nature of their faith, so when news came a year later, in 1220, that these five monks had been martyred, it sealed his decision: he became a Franciscan.  He took the name Anthony, after the Hermit, to whom the Franciscan hermitage was dedicated, and set off to follow in the footsteps of the martyred monks.

Anthony sailed to Morocco with the intention of preaching, only he got a fever which prevented him from getting out of bed.  Realising (or deciding?) that this maybe wasn’t the path God had intended for him, he decided to go back to Portugal, only the ship was blown off course and he landed in Sicily.  Again confused by the path he was meant to follow, Anthony decided to go to Assisi, the home of St Francis, who he heard preaching during a mass meeting of Franciscan friars.  When this event was over, Anthony was again at a loose end, before a friar from Bologna invited him to serve as a priest for a community of hermits in Montepaolo, near Forlì.

Then there was another change in direction.  One day, he went to Forlì to attend the ordination of a priest, when the preacher didn’t turn up.  Anthony was called upon to preach and surprised and impressed everybody with his words.  This opened up a period dedicated to preaching throughout North Italy and Southern France, particularly in areas where heretical views had started to take control.

His success in his role led to his becoming a Minister Principle (guide) in North Italy, which involved travelling to many monasteries in the area.  He was in Padua when he fell ill with ergotism, a poisoning which is caused by eating cereals, particularly rye, which has been infected by the ergot fungus.  It’s a nasty illness, causing convulsive symptoms, like painful seizures and spasms, and mental effects including mania – and that’s before the gangrene sets in.  Anthony went to a retreat at Camposampiero and lived in a cell built for him under the branches of a walnut tree.  He was being taken back to Padua when he died on 13th June 1231 at the age of 35.

The extent of the love felt for Anthony is shown strongly in the fact that he was made a saint the year after he died.

The Church

It’s thought that a little niche or chapel was built in St Anthony’s Lisbon home soon after he was canonised in 1232, and it is known that the City Council ran St Anthony’s House from 1326 till 1753.  It makes sense that since Anthony was so important in his own lifetime that this is the real location of his home.

In 1495, King João II had the church around the house rebuilt, and successive monarchs added improvements.  The 1755 earthquake damaged it so badly that only the chancel survived.  The present church was constructed between 1767 and 1812, a project that drew upon contributions from the city council and its citizens; children would walk around the streets asking  for um tostão para Santo António” (a penny for Saint Anthony) to help with the funding.

The inside of the church is very sweet, quite simple and elegant.  Despite lots of people coming and going, there was still a peacefulness about the place.

The church houses the remains of St Justina of Padua.  Yes, there is the word Padua again.  She was a 4th century martyr in whose honour the Paduans set up a church in the 6th century.  She is also Venice’s second patron saint.  What is she doing in Lisbon?  No idea.  Presumably because Padua has Lisbon’s famous saintly son, they thought they’d be nice and give Lisbon Padua’s famous saintly daughter.

On the altar you can just about see a red box – this holds a bone from St Anthony’s left arm, which is brandished every Tuesday after the 5pm mass.  At least, I think it is.

There are very prominent signs for the crypt, and if you follow them, you will pass through a shop and a pretty room before getting to a staircase.  Before you is a scene in tiles showing the visit of Pope John Paul II, a very evocative work, because when you too descend the steps, in front of you is the scene depicted on the tile – barring the presence of the Pope, naturally.

The crypt is a tiny space – there’s not enough room to swing a cat and it was quite busy when we visited.  This takes away something from the atmosphere, though anyone who wants to pray or meditate in silence can loiter for a while and get the chance to kneel on the same bench as Jean Paul II.  Behind the grille is an altar and a plaque marking this as the birthplace of St Anthony.

So In Summary

For me, visiting the church was one of the highlights of my trip to Lisbon, but I appreciate that for people who aren’t interested in St Anthony the church isn’t so beautiful that it would pull you in.  Personally I found it moving – not just because a man was born here who has been an inspiration to millions of people, but also because millions of people have visited this spot for over 700 years to experience a personal and spiritual connection with that man and his faith.

Further Information

Entry into the church is free, but there is a fee to enter the little museum beside it.  Unfortunately, we didn’t get chance to go there.

There is a website available in English and Italian (as well as Portuguese) which is quite neat:

How To Get There

I found the Lisbon transport system somewhat unfriendly.  It’s not bad, but I just had problems with it during my stay.  However, their transport is run by these people, and their site is English:



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