Animal instincts: St. Gertrude, saving cat souls, and a nod to one saintly pitbull

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After my cat Asia died in 2011, I comforted myself at church by praying under a stained glass window, depicting – to my imperfect vision — a saint with a mackerel tabby draped around his shoulders.

OK, maybe not exactly a tabby.

Upon further research, I discovered the stained glass window represented St. Augustine, in front of a background design that looked like a mackerel tabby. (I may be the first to see the resemblance, I will admit.)

So, I took art history and learned enough to figure maybe, this artist also intended to suggest a kitty. Anyway, the icon made me feel my little guy made it to cat heaven.

Gabby DogCharlie, my black cat, I had no doubt, was headed straight to heaven, but I fretted about Asia. He had arrived as a stray set in his ways and determined to spend outdoor time on his own. I worried how my allowing him outside – where he committed carnage on mice – may have counted against him.

So, I was overjoyed to hear last week the story of Gertrude of Nivelles, also known as the patron saint of cats, who may have – the legend is a little vague — led an army of kitties into battle to protect the abbey, which was overrun with rats.

Gertrude shares a feast day with St. Patrick, but I had never heard about her. More about why later.

I happened upon Gertrude through Karen Brothers, of Seattle, Wash., one of Pawfleet Cmdr. Boris-Kitty’s pals.

Brothers has launched a non-profit, Four Paws Lifeline,  to help people pay for emergency veterinary care. She’s just getting started, and Boris gave her the OK to use his story to illustrate how steep the costs can climb. Brothers emailed Gabby, and thus inadvertently spilled the beans about the cat saint. (Her avatar pictures Gertrude with her cats.)

So, who was this Gertrude? According to the stories, she was born in 629 in Belgium. Her father died when she was 14, and her mother built “his and her” monasteries at Nivelles, which mother and daughter joined. Gertrude later became the abbess.

After more research, I also must report she’s never been canonized officially — one more reason I can’t help feeling our pets, especially the cats, have received short shrift from organized religion.

Of course, the cats can always fall back on St. Francis of Assisi, but perhaps Pope Francis, who seems to be on board with all God’s creatures, might throw Gertrude’s canonization on his to-do list.

Now, to give equal time to the saintly dogs among us, consider the story of “Sweet Dee,” the pit bull.

According to Rob Halpin, of the MSPCA-Angell, Dee was in the Boston shelter five years ago when Elliott Nerland, of West Roxbury, Mass., and his wife Erin Day adopted her.

As so often happens, the once-unwanted dog repaid them for their kindness.

Last May, Mr. Nerland suffered a heart attack in the middle of the night. Dee, now 6, realized her best friend wasn’t just sleeping. She barked up a storm and alerted Daly, who called 911 and started pounding on her husband’s chest until the first responders arrived.

“At this stage Elliott’s heart had stopped and he was not breathing,” she later told Halpin.  “I credit Sweet Dee with making it very clear that something was terribly wrong.  Had I made it there even one minute later Elliott may not be with us today.”

He recovered after spending “several days in a medically-induced coma” and is back at home, Halpin said.

“I feel like the luckiest guy in the world,” Nerland said. “It’s just astounding  how Sweet Dee knew that something was very wrong and that it was clear to her that I wasn’t sleeping,” he said.  “She’s a beloved member of our family, but I never realized just how deep our bond is.”

Have a tip or story idea? E-mail Margo Ann Sullivan at and follow The_Gabby_Dog on Twitter. Catch up on The Gabby Dog archives here.


Margo Ann Sullivan

Margo Ann Sullivan is a pet columnist who has written for ZooToo, and numerous publications in New York and in New England. She’s had pets all her life, starting with a rescue collie named Lollypop. The Gabby Dog column chases the news that helps pets and people. It also chronicles the adventures of Gabby, the peke-a-poo, and Asia, the tabby cat, and their many pals, hitting the high spots between Providence, RI, and Manchester, NH.

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About Carol Robidoux 5853 Articles
Longtime NH journalist and publisher of Loves R&B, German beer, and the Queen City!