Saint Quilda – Martyr, c.1435–1487, canonised 1591

Attr, the SNP
Modern day St Quilda

She was born Anna Grisinek, daughter of a peasant in the neighbourhood of Mrk, in present-day Croatia. As a girl, Anna was renowned for her ugliness, for which she more than compensated with intense piety and devotion, spending many hours at prayer in the village church. Failing to find a suitor, in 1465 she entered the nearby Dominican convent of St Alginus, taking the name Quilda (of unknown origin, possibly a version of the Celtic St Kilda). Her piety and her abilities rapidly raised her to the post of abbess. The sisters already observed the strict Rule of Serbonius of Perge (later canonised as St Serbonius), which obliged them to walk at all times on their knees; Quilda made it more arduous still by having the stone floors covered with pebbles.

In 1487 an Ottoman invasion bore down on the town of Mrk, and it seemed that the convent would be sacked and the nuns violated by the Turks. Quilda prayed earnestly for deliverance, and her prayer was answered: suddenly her teeth grew to enormous length and sharpness, a sight so hideous that the other nuns fled the chapel. When the Turkish troops broke down the door, the transformed Quilda stood alone to confront them. At the miraculous spectacle, the commander and all his men fell to their knees and converted to Christianity on the spot; after which both they and Quilda were beheaded by the rest of the army. The Turks, however, left the convent untouched for fear of what else they might find.
The following decades brought many reports of miraculous cures of toothache among those who had visited the abbey church, and it became a place of pilgrimage. Repeated popular appeals that Quilda should be canonised led to an investigation in 1587, during which all the elderly and mostly toothless clerics on the panel suddenly had their teeth restored to full number and health. The case was rapidly concluded, and Quilda was beatified in 1588 and canonised by Pope Innocent IX in 1591.

The church was at once rededicated to St Quilda. Suppliants took part in a unique ceremony in which they hung by their teeth from a set of wooden bars at the back of the church throughout a said mass and the singing of the acrostic Hymn of St Quilda, ‘Quomodo quandoque quaesivi’. These rites continued to be observed at least until 1939.

The church was rebuilt on a larger scale in 1712 to a design by Fischer von Erlach, and in 1797 a substantial mural painting on the east wall was executed by F.A. Maulbertsch, ‘The Transfiguration of St Quilda’. The image of the transformed saint was considered so shocking that it was covered with a curtain which is still opened only on the saint’s feast day.

Martyr, c.1435–1487, canonised 1591, feast day. 29 February

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