Vila Nova de Gaia, Portugal

Saint Maria Adelaide

An honorary saint of the people, Maria Adelaide became an incorrupt corpse, the clothes intact, exhaling “a strong scent of roses”

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Meet Portugal’s most popular – uncanonised – saint.

Born in Porto in 1835, Maria Adelaide grew up in a local boarding school, and then in a convent in a nearby city, Vila Nova de Gaia. It was there she contracted tuberculosis, something plenty blamed on the strict closure and the very humid building, right on the riverside. Eventually, her condition became so serious that her doctors advised her to leave the convent and move back to Porto. She did so, but still the move wasn’t enough, and her condition worsened yet again. This time, the doctors recommended a move to a seaside area “with plenty of pines and eucalyptuses.”

The story goes that the launderer of the convent, born in a little town that seemed to fit the bill just right, took it upon herself to spread the news around, eventually managing to mass quite a considerable number of potential hosts for Maria Adelaide. Thus, she moved to Arcozelo in May of 1876, accompanied by a doctor and a handful of friends. There, partly due to the appropriate climate, partly due to the kindness she both gave and received from the locals, Maria Adelaide’s health improved significantly, leaving her finally able to pursue her usual activities – she enjoyed baking and embroidering, and she used those two talents to raise money for anyone who needed it. She was also well-known for her way with children, to whom she often read the catechism.

Her blameless life came to a halt in 1885, when a sudden cold aggravated her fragile health condition. Maria Adelaide was buried in the local cemetery, in Arcozelo, where both she and her story lay undisturbed for the next thirty years.

Fast-forward to 1916, when the plot where she’d been buried was sold to a new owner – and most particularly, when the removal of the coffin revealed, much to the gravedigger’s surprise, an incorrupt body, the clothes intact, exhaling “a strong scent of roses.” The men in charge determined that the body should be washed in chemicals and buried in a common grave – a rather pragmatic solution. Unsurprisingly though, this plan couldn’t be kept secret, and what followed was a series of small conflicts between the authorities and the locals which eventually culminated in the invasion of the cemetery by the population during the Sunday mass. The enthusiasm was such that the coffin was allegedly brought back to the surface in a few minutes – with the body inside it, still incorrupt.

The “saint” was washed by a group of women, dressed in new clothes, and deposited in an urn, so the population could observe it in an orderly fashion. Still, they believed Maria Adelaide to be a saint due to her kindness in life, and her incorrupt body in death, and they wanted her to have her own chapel – which was completed in 1921, and then replaced by a bigger one in 1924. She’s lain there ever since, though not as undisturbed as some would hope – there was a violent explosion in 1924, two attempted robberies in 1930 and 1931, an actual robbery in 1981 (which left damages to the body; two broken fingers on the left hand), and a vicious attack in 1983 by a man who tried to destroy the body of the saint with a club hammer.

Nevertheless, she carries on, and so does her cult – even if unsupported by the Catholic Church, which has refused her canonisation. She’s been visited so many times, and offered so many small gifts, that she has her own museum. There, one can count around six hundred baptism, communion, and wedding dresses (it is said that the complete collection goes well over six thousand, though there’s simply no way to showcase it), money from over twenty-five countries, all types of pottery, jewelry, candles, wrist watches, sports shirts, a few prosthetics and cut strands of hair, and thousands of photographs and thank-you notes.

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    Rua Padre Nunes de Campos, Vila Nova de Gaia, 4410-371, Portugal
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