I have had a great interest in and fondness for St. Valentine for many years. I think the time-honored custom back in the Willard Public School, which I attended for eight years, of having a Valentine box for the distribution of Valentines on February 14th made a deep impression upon me. Students made and decorated the “Valentine box,” and I was often one of those students who were involved in this project. Valentines were then dropped into the box through a slot and later distributed to the students, a prelude to the candies later supplied by the teacher to conclude the event. I am inclined to believe that the splash of red, white and pink colors associated with Valentine’s Day supplied a certain cheer and optimism for the students in the midst of a harsh Wisconsin winter.
Unfortunately, many people do not know the historical background for St. Valentine’s Day. St. Valentine was a Catholic priest in Rome who healed the daughter of a prefect and thus converted the whole family. In time, he was arrested and put in prison for his teaching on marriage. St. Valentine taught the sacramentality of Christian marriage and thus was at odds with pagan Roman officials who saw marriage only in terms of a civil contract.
Christian followers did not forget their great priest and so they gathered outside of St. Valentine’s prison window daily to await some message of hope and inspiration. St. Valentine would appear and send down little notes of cheer signed, “From your Valentine.” Thus was born the custom, which has endured for centuries, of sending valentines to loved ones, both relatives and friends, on February 14th.
St. Valentine was martyred for his beliefs and his body is buried in Rome. His name, from the Latin, means “strong and healthy.”
Many years ago, when I was teaching in a seminary on the east coast, I mentioned to one of my students how difficult it was to find a statue of St. Valentine. He told me that he would make one for me because he was an artist. Indeed, he did make a lovely statue of St. Valentine. St. Valentine is shown with a white tunic and a purple mantle. The mantle is purple because historically the color purple was reserved for royalty and priests.
In the statue that was crafted for me, St. Valentine is holding a white scroll with a red heart centered on it, a reminder of the message he used to send to his beloved followers from his prison cell, messages, as already stated, which said, “From your Valentine.”
By Monsignor Matthew G. Malnar
Photography by Monica Organ