Saint Edmund was born in Abingdon, England around the year 1175.
Little is known about his family, but his biographers believe that he had at least 2 sisters and a brother. He attended school at Oxford and the University of Paris, although the exact dates of attendance are unknown. He eventually went on the teach mathematics at Oxford. (He is sometimes credited with being the first to teach Aristotle at Oxford, while this cannot be conclusively proven, he was certainly one of the earliest.) St. Edmund Hall, an Oxford college, is named for him.
Edmund had entered an academic life, but found he could not ignore his religious calling. By 1222 he had left Oxford and was preaching in Calne. In addition to his duties at Calne, in 1222 Edmund began a 12 year term as the treasurer at Salisbury Cathedral, where he likely had some involvement with the building of the great cathedral. In 1234, he was elected Archbishop of Canterbury, head of the English Church.
As Archbishop, he was often in conflict with King Henry III , insisting the king stop showing favor to his foreign barons. Henry eventually brought in a papal legate sympathetic to himself, and Edmund was forced to journey to Rome to discuss the issue with Pope Gregory IX. Unsuccessful in Rome, he returned to England.
In 1240, he left England again and traveled to the Cistercian Abbey at Pontigny, which had sheltered two of his embattled predecessors, Stephen Langton and Thomas Becket. He died at nearby Soisy on November 16. His body was returned to Pontigny where it was interred Pontigny and still resides today.
During his life he was known as a powerful preacher, a gentle, kind leader and a particularly austere and learned priest. Miracles were soon associated with Edmund’s body, and formal proceedings to canonize him began almost immediately. He was canonized in late 1246. Shortly after, the tomb of Saint Edmund was opened in the presence of Queen Blanche and King Louis of France. There were no signs of decay or corruption at that point, and the body was replaced in the tomb. In 1249, Bishop Guy de Mello placed the remains in a reliquary.
The Cistercian monks at Pontigny took great care of the relics in their guardianship.
A cult arose around Saint Edmund and for many years pilgrims made their way to Pontigny.
In the 18th Century, a new reliquary was built, and the relics were transferred under the observation of many. Both the relics and the reliquary survived the turmoil and destruction that beset much church property during the French Revolution. The subsequent sale of the property had no effect on the relics either.
In 1843, Father Jean Baptiste Muard formed a group of diocesan missionaries around the ruins of Pontigny. In 1852, these missionary priests took formal vows to become a religious institute or religious order. They adopted the name Society of the Fathers and Brothers of Saint Edmund, Oblates of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary. They took as their patron Saint Edmund, for whose relics they became responsible with their guardianship of the abbey church at Pontigny.
On September 3 1849, a group of priests and delegates of the Archbishop of Sens examined the relics of Saint Edmund, which were found to be largely undamaged. In addition to the arm, which had been detached for many centuries, small portions of the corpse that had become detached from the main were removed from the reliquary placed in paper, sealed and given to specific dignitaries.
This illustration from an 1861 publication shows three textiles moved from the tomb of Saint Edmund to the Museum. The maniple and the sandal are still housed in the Museum at the Cathedral at Sens France, where they are described as “vestments from the life of Saint Edmund.”
The illustration is believed to be a drawing of this textile, which is housed in the collection at Saint Michael’s College. There is no information about when the textile came to America; it is probable that the Edmundites transferred it following one of their sales of Pontigny. There is no indication that it came to America in the 1950’s with the arm of Saint Edmund.
The Society of Saint Edmund retained control of Pontigny through the 19th Century. They expanded their “missionary” work into Western France, taking responsibility for churches and schools at Mont-St-Michel, Chateau-Gontier, and Laval. They were forced to leave France in 1903 during the Church State controversy. This controversy, which forced the Church to divest itself of all its property, affected many religious institutions throughout France.
Although they were forced out of France physically, the Society continued to define itself as French. They established Houses in England and in North America, but they always intended to return to Pontigny.
In the 1930’s following a period of great turmoil within the Society, they
were finally able to purchase Pontigny once again, although during World War II the Nazi’s briefly took control.
Following the Occupation, the Society returned to Pontigny, establishing a French-American School on the property.
In 1947, the Society hosted a large celebration at Pontigny for the 700th anniversary of Saint Edmund’s Canonization.
In 1954, the Society of Saint Edmund, having failed to regain a strong enough foothold in France, sold Pontigny to the Mission of France. At that time, they asked permission to remove the relic of the arm of Saint Edmund to America. The reliquary was replaced and sealed in September and then traveled by ship to New York. It was taken to Vermont and then later to New York City, where a Father of the Blessed Sacrament unsealed it, made a slight repair and exchanged the
linens with new silks. While in the City, the Edmundite Fathers stopped at the Museum of Natural History, where they asked for advice about the care of the relic. The museum curators advised against sealing the arm with wax, given its condition at 700+ years with no treatment.
Through the years there have been many images of Saint Edmund. A few of the varied images are displayed here.
In 1957, the arm was placed in a shrine at Saint Michael’s College, where it remained until 1965.It was then moved to Swanton VT. In 2002, with the building of a new facility at Enders Island in Mystic CT, the relic of Saint Edmund was moved there, where it still resides.