MICHAEL DE FABRA
Writers of Spanish and Dominican history often speak of Father Michael de Fabra, who belonged to one of the noblest families in his native land, Old Castile. Despite the high standing of the house of the de Fabra, they give us no idea of the date of his birth. Similarly, in his Life of King James I of Aragon, surnamed "the Conqueror," Father Peter Marsilio records many facts about the great Friar Preacher, but is absolutely silent as regards his early days. Still the trend of his distinguished career, as we know it, is proof that, while a youth, he made good use of the advantages usually afforded those of his state in life.(1)
Just how, or when, he first came in contact with Saint Dominic it would be hard to say. The date of his death (1248) seems to preclude any probability that the two met as students at the University of Palencia. Possibly de Fabra was one of the ecclesiastics who accompanied Bishop de Azebes on his historic mission among the Albigenses. Again, Michael might have acted as a chaplain of the Spanish crusaders in Languedoc. The suggestion that he bore arms in the crusade, and later exchanged the sword for the Gospel as his weapon of combat, appears to be groundless. Perhaps the reports that reached Spain of the need of missionaries in southern France and the great work of Dominic there inspired him with the desire to take part in the apostolate of his fellow-countryman.
However the association was brought about, all the writers agree that Michael de Fabra was among Saint Dominic's first sixteen disciples, that he was a party to the various deliberations at Toulouse and Prouille about the new Order, and that he was one of the seven sent to establish it in Paris.(2) Dominic selected him for this post, for he wanted him to teach the divine sciences to the recruits in the university city. Almost immediately that the little community became settled in their temporary home of Notre Dame of the Vines, at the French capital, Michael de Fabra began to give a course in theology. Thus he has the distinction of being the world's first Friar-Preacher professor.
This fact is proof positive that our noble Castilian was a man of learning before he placed himself under the guidance of Dominic. Indeed, there are reasons for believing that Michael was already a doctor in theology. Where he received his education is not known. Both Palencia, Spain, and Paris itself have been suggested as the places. But these are mere conjectures. Father Touron assures us that he did not suffer his professorial duties to interfere with his prayers, meditation, or religious exercises, for he was a deeply spiritual priest. At the same time, his zeal led him to do a great deal of preaching, whereby he accomplished no little good.
Father de Fabra's stay in northern France was short. As stated in a previous sketch, he arrived there about October, 1217. Late in the first half of 1219, Saint Dominic visited Paris. He had just come from Spain, where the young Order had begun to take root. In spite of the opposition shown it, the Parisian community, through plentiful vocations, was now in a fair way to prosperity, and doubtless had men who could fill Michael's place. There was greater need for him in his native land. Furthermore, Dominic had most likely made up his mind to call Blessed Reginald of Orleans from Bologna and associate him with Matthew of France, for we soon find him both teaching and preaching at Paris. De Fabra, therefore, now made his way back to chivalrous Spain.(3)
Touron says simply that Michael was sent into the Kingdom of Aragon. The Année Dominicaine thinks he was commissioned to go direct to Barcelona, at that time the capital of Catalonia, that he might aid in establishing the Priory of Saint Catherine in that city. The two statements are not necessarily opposed, for Catalonia was then under the crown of Aragon. Yet, when de Fabra received his orders to report to Spain, the foundation at Barcelona could hardly have had any existence except in the mind of Saint Dominic, who certainly hoped soon to see his institute obtain a place there.(4) On his journey from Paris, Michael most likely travelled with Blessed Mannes, as the latter went thence to Madrid at the same time.
Just where in Spain the subject of our sketch went first it would be difficult to say. However, we soon find him at Barcelona, which he seems to have made his home for some years. The authors generally tell us that he was a true Friar Preacher, given to a happy combination of the contemplative and active life, always ready for whatever labor his superiors imposed on him. To great learning he added a graceful and ready eloquence, and he preached with a fervor that stirred the heart. Dominic, of course, knew his willingness and his worth perfectly well. Possibly, therefore, when (late in 1219) the saint sent some of his confrères from Bologna with Berengarius de Palou, bishop of Barcelona, to establish the Order in the latter's episcopal city, he forwarded word to Father Michael to join them in Catalonia.(5)
Because of his exemplary life, zeal, and eloquence de Fabra soon became known at the royal court. The young king of Aragon, James I, surnamed the Conqueror, appointed him one of his confessors. In this capacity Michael accompanied James and his army in the war to drive the Moors from Majorca and the other Balearic Islands, which they had held for centuries. The contest in Majorca was long and bitter. As companion de Fabra had Father Berengarius de Castellbisbal, who afterwards became bishop of Gerona.
When the Spanish soldiers grew weary and disheartened with their hard task, they were aroused to renewed energy by the patriotic and Christian sermons of Father de Fabra, whose soul yearned to see the cross triumph over the crescent, by which it had been supplanted in that beautiful part of Spain.
The resistance to James' army was particularly stubborn in and around Palma, the capital of Majorca and the stronghold of the Moors, which they considered impregnable. Here, it is said, Father Michael's stirring eloquence produced a marvellous effect on the Spanish soldiery, who were thus inspired with a heroic determination. It was late on December 31, 1229, when the place was finally taken by assault. The young king of Aragon was so fatigued by his exertions that he decided to remain in his camp overnight, and not to enter the city until the next day. But to prevent the town, and especially the Moorish palace, from being burned or pillaged he sent Fathers de Fabra and de Castellbisbal into Palma with a small guard to bold the victorious troops in check; for he felt that the reverence in which the two chaplains were held by all his men would cause their word as well as their persons to be respected.
Like Saint Dominic himself, our early Friar Preacher was much given to prayer and meditation. Often, when engaged in his devotions, did he appear to be rapt in ecstasy. King James and his troops felt that their sueeess against the Moors was in no small measure due to the intercession of the holy priest. The soldiers held him in such high esteem that no one was spoken of so often. Even those of the infidels who remained in the country, and were converted to the faith, always said: "The Blessed Virgin and Father Michael took Majorca."(6)
In recognition of the services of the two chaplains, one of the first acts of young King James, on entering Palma, was to allot a space in the precincts of the palace of the Moorish sovereign for a church and house of the Order, which later became a large priory. They were dedicated to God under the title of Saint Mary and Saint Michael of Victory. While James gave his efforts to the civic reconstruction of the island, Father de Fabra was entrusted with its religious reorganization. Through his zeal, instructions, and kindly manners, a number of the captive Moors were not only converted to the faith, but also became staunch Catholics. He received some of them into his religious institute.
For six years from this time Michael seems to have remained in Majorca in the double capacity of prior at Palma and administrator of the Church on the island. However, his position as royal confessor no doubt caused him to make frequent journeys to Saragossa and Barcelona, respectively the capitals of Aragon and Catalonia, in both of which James I held his cortes or legislative assemblies. Meantime, the Aragonese monarch determined to drive the Moors from the former Kingdom of Valencia also. There are those who, not without reason, believe that Father de Fabra took an active part in bringing about this expedition. Few can doubt that he strongly advocated it. The enterprise began late in October, 1236. De Fabra and de Castellbisbal were appointed chaplains for the forces who were to lay siege to Valencia, the capital city.
The Moors defended the stronghold with their accustomed bravery and determination. For nearly two years they withstood every attempt to take the place. During all this time Father de Fabra, in his sermons and conversation, constantly encouraged the Spanish soldiers engaged in the conflict; for he longed to see the cross exalted, instead of the crescent, in Valencia, as bad been done in Majorca. The capital fell into the hands of James on September 28, 1238. It was the eve of the feast of Michael the Archangel, the saintly chaplain's patron. When the Spanish king entered Valencia, his esteemed confessor, de Fabra, marched at the head of the conquerors, and carried a banner, on one side of which was painted the cross, while on the other was a picture of the Blessed Virgin. More than a hundred armored chevaliers escorted him. Delegations from various cities followed the banner to the principal mosque, which the Most Rev. Peter de Albalate, archbishop of Tarragona, blessed, and then said mass in the edifice.
At first, King James assigned the palace of the former Moorish ruler to Father Michael and his confr6res, for there were several of them with the army, as their temporary abode. A few days later, the sovereign gave them the Church of Saint Nicholas, together with a large piece of ground for a monastery. All this was done in gratitude for the faithful services rendered the cause by our early disciple of Saint Dominic. As at Palma, so at Valencia the success of the victorious Spaniards was largely attributed to the prayers and exhortations of de Fabra. Captured Moors, after they had met and recognized him, attested under oath that during the bitterest combats they saw him, or his effigy, in the air, clothed in the habit and brandishing the sword against them. The apparition struck terror into their hearts.(7)
As in Majorca, so in the newly conquered territory Michael was entrusted with the rehabilitation of the Christian religion. His first act was to call ecclesiastics, whether religious or diocesan, from all parts, that they might instruct the people in the principles of the Catholic faith. The change thus effected in a short time was marvellous. Meanwhile he also occupied himself with the construction of a house of his Order in the City of Valencia. Whether Father de Fabra dedicated this monastery to Saint Nicholas, like the church, or to his own friend and spiritual father, Saint Dominic, who had lately been canonized, and whose name it bore afterwards, we do not know. Be this as it may, the convent became one of the most illustrious in all Spain. Its sons have shone for their learning, zeal, and sanctity. There is no field of spiritual or intellectual activity in which they have not become renowned. Its apostolic men have labored in almost every part of the world -- especially in Latin America. We need only mention Saint Vincent Ferrer, Saint Louis Bertrand, and Father John Micon, who is commonly placed among the Order's blesseds. All this was the outgrowth of the spirit which Michael de Fabra implanted there; and it should immortalize his name.
In his History of the Counts of Barcelona, Father Francis Diago assures us that James I, after the restoration of Catholicity in Valencia, nominated our early disciple of Saint Dominic for its first bishop; but that the controversy between the Most Revs. Peter de Albalate and Roderic Ximenes de Rada, respectively the archbishops of Tarragona and Toledo, as to which of these ecclesiastical provinces the new diocese should belong, prevented his appointment by the Holy See.(8) Yet one is justified in the belief that the holy man's own humility was what principally saved him from the onerous dignity. When the question of affiliation was finally settled (1240), the only reason that can be assigned why he did not receive the honor is that he preferred to end his days as a religious.
What we know of the character and career of Father de Fabra proves that, as regards himself, he asked only the privilege of being allowed to labor for the salvation of souls, the good of the Church, and the glory of God. In all things he chose Saint Dominic as his model ambassador of Christ. He shunned personal dignities. The influence which his virtue, merit, and ability gave him in Spain, whether with the royal or ecclesiastical powers, and at the court of Rome he used exclusively for the betterment of religion.
We have an example of this in what we are now to record. The canons of Lerida, unable to agree among themselves on a successor for the Right Rev. Raymond de Siscar who died August 21, 1247, left it to the Holy See to select a bishop for them. Innocent IV, December 24, 1247, delegated the archbishop of Tarragona (Peter de Albalate), Saint Raymond of Peñafort, and Michael de Fabra, whom the document designates as a "doctor in theology," to choose a chief pastor for the Diocese of Lerida. They elected Father William de BarberA, prior of Saint Catherine's, Barcelona. This was on March 2, 1248. The life and labors of the holy prelate show that the committee made a wise choice.(9)
The above is the last deed of Father Michael of which we have any record. Neither the day nor the year of his death is given by any of the earliest writers. But it is the common opinion that he surrendered his soul to God shortly after he took part in the election of Bishop de Barberá. We do not know why the Dominican hagiology (the Année Dominicaine) gives the sketch of his life for February 7, and marks his death as having occurred in 1248. The writer of the article says expressly that he acted with Archbishop de Albalate and Saint Raymond, "March 2," that year, in the selection of a chief pastor for Lerida. Very probably he died in 1248, which is also claimed by Pio; yet it could not have been until after the second day of March.
Father de Fabra was first buried in the common cemetery of the community at Valencia, where he ended his days. Shortly afterwards the extraordinary things that happened at his grave caused his body to be transferred to the church. It was made an occasion of great solemnity. The Right Rev. Andrew de Albalate, O. P., who had just been taken from the same community to become the bishop of Valencia, presided at the event. All the clergy and many of the people of the city were present. Later, at a second translation of the holy man's remains, he was placed in the Chapel of Saint Peter Martyr, for which a large concourse of both priests and faithful gathered at the church.
The attention of the reader has been called to the reputation which this early disciple of Saint Dominic enjoyed for holiness of life. All the writers speak of this. Malvenda, for instance, says: "Father Michael was a great preacher of the word of God. This truly apostolic office he filled with so much fervor that his pure, candid soul readily forgot the body and became absorbed in the thought of things divine and heavenly. He was renowned for his sanctity. He possessed a wonderful gift of prayer and meditation."(10) Touron tells us that his tender piety, rare talents, good judgment, and signal services to religion won him the love and esteem of everyone. On the marble slab that marked his grave, after the second translation of his remains, were engraved these words:Within this tomb lie the venerated remains of Father Michael de Fabra, a man of marvellous sanctity, a native of Spain, the founder of this convent and that at Majorca. He received the habit from the hands of Saint Dominic at Toulouse, and was the first member of the Order to teach theology. As confessor of our King James, of happy memory, he accompanied his majesty in the conquest of the kingdoms of Valencia and Majorca. At the urging of all the clergy and people of Valencia, because of the numerous miracles with which God honored him, both during life and after death, his body was taken from the common burial ground of the fathers, put in a casket, and placed in the Chapel of Saint Peter Martyr, which is that of the de Fabra family. In all things we recommend ourselves to his intercession before God. Amen.(11)
1. ALBERTI, fol. 179; Année Dominicaine, II (February), 179 ff; ANTHONY of Sienna (or of Portugal), O. P., Chronicon Fratrum Ordinis Praedicatorum; BALME-LELAIDIER, II, 132, 372 ff; BZOVIUS (Bzowski), XIII, col. 366; CASTILLO, pp. 55-56; DIAGO, Francis, O. P., Historia de la Provincia de Aragon; JORDAN of Saxony, Opera (Berthier ed.), p. 17; MALVENDA, pp. 177-178, 470 ff, 613-614; MAMACHI, pp. 369, 411, fol. 366; MARSILIO, Peter, O. P., Commentarium de Gestis Regis Aragonum Jacobi Primi, Book 2, Chap. XLII; MORTIER, I, 29, 90, 227; PIO, col. 17; QUETIF-ECHARD, I, 16. The sketch is largely taken from the Année Dominicaine and Malvenda. Michael de Fabra is another noted and saintly character missed by Marchese in his Sagro Diario Domenicano. (Ed. note).
2. See sketches of Blessed Mannes, Michael of France, and John of Navarre.
3. MORTIER, I, 227.
4. BALME-LELAIDIER, II, 372 ff.
6. FLEURY, op. cit., XVII, 2; MALVENDA, p. 472; MARSILIO, as in note 1; ZURITA, Jerome, Añales de la Corona de Aragon, Book 3, Chap. V.
7. BEUTER, Anthony, Chronicon de Rebus Hispaniae; MALVENDA, pp. 613-614.
8. Historia de los Victoriosissimos Antiguos Condes de Barcelona, Book 3, Chap. IX.
9. Bullarium Ordinis Praedicatorum, I, 180; GAMS, Series Episcoporum, p. 43. Father Touron is in error, when he says that Archbishop de Albalate was a Friar Preacher. (Ed. note).
10. Op. cit., p. 178.
11. Not having the original, in Father Francis Diago's Historia de la Provincia de Aragon, we were obliged to translate this inscription from the Année Dominicaine's French rendition. The church and convent of Majorca, like many others, were destroyed during the revolution of 1834-1835.