Today, July 7, as I’m sure many of you are aware, is Saint Fermin’s Day, after which the world famous festival in Iruñea-Pamplona, Nafarroa is named. But did you also know that July 4 this year was a holiday in Bizkaia, on the occasion of the feast day of the province’s first saint, Balentin Berriotxoa (also spelled Berrio-Otxoa)? Today we thought we’d take a quick look at the individuals behind these two holidays.

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Saint Balentin Berriotxoa. Image by vinhanonline.com, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Balentin Faustino Berriotxoa Arizti was born in Elorrio, Bizkaia, in 1827. At age 18 he entered the Logroño Seminary but after three years, lacking the necessary funds to continue his studies, he returned home to Elorrio where he worked as a carpenter with his father. Finally, though, in 1851 he was ordained a priest and became a well-known figure in his local area.

His real vocation, however, was to be a missionary and to that end in 1854 he joined the Dominican Order. It is around this time that he is reputed to have said, half in jest, that he would eventually become Bizkaia’s first saint. In 1857, he was sent to Asia to work as a missionary, arriving first in Manila. There he set about studying Vietnamese as his final destination was to be Tonkin, in what is today the northern part of Vietnam.

When he arrived there in 1858, Emperor Tự Đức of Vietnam was sanctioning a particularly bloody persecution of all foreign missionaries, with no quarter offered. This was due to a general suspicion of foreigners that stemmed from previous foreign efforts to depose his father as king. The result was that Berriotxoa often had to carry out his parish duties among the converts in his charge under cover of darkness and away from any official eyes. As timed passed, though, so this was increasingly difficult. The emperor issued a decree to destroy the Christian community in the country and in 1861 Berriotxoa was arrested and, following a trial, he was sentenced to death. On November 1, 1861, he was beheaded. His remains were eventually transferred back to Elorrio, where they are kept in the parish church.

Berriotxoa was beatified in 1905, along with the other so-called Vietnamese Martyrs, and canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1988, making him the first Bizkaian-born saint. July 4 is an annual holiday in Elorrio in honor of Berriotxoa that is also occasionally observed in Bizkaia as a whole. One can also visit the Balentin Berriotxoa Museum in Elorrio.

Saint Fermin of Amiens, meanwhile, was born in Iruñea-Pamplona (Pompaelo in Latin) c.272, reputedly the son of a pagan Roman of senatorial rank, who converted to Christianity. At age 18 he was sent to Toulouse (Tolosa in Occitan) in the Roman province of Gallia Narbonensis, where he was ordained. Thereafter, following an initial period preaching the gospel in Nafarroa he was sent to Gaul as a missionary, settling in Amiens, and becoming a bishop at the age of 24. Yet there was still much hostility to Christianity among the Gaulish tribes. As a consequence, Fermin was arrested and because he refused to give up his faith he was beheaded on September 25, 303.

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The decapitation of Saint Fermin, as depicted in the Orreaga-Roncesvalles Church, Nafarroa. Photo by Rowanwindwhistler, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

After certain relics of Saint Fermin were brought back to Iruñea-Pamplona in the late 12th century, annual celebrations in his honor gradually took on more importance. Two such festivals are currently held in the city: the famous festival in July of course, and San Fermin Txikito or San Fermin Txiki (Little Saint Fermin) in the Old Quarter of the city, every September 25.  The town of Lesaka in northern Nafarroa also celebrates the July date and Fermin is, likewise, still honored in Amiens as well. Check out this interesting article on the origins of Saint Fermin.