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St Valentine in the town of Sambir


A part of the relics of St Valentine made its way to Ukraine in the eighteenth century and now it is kept in a church in the town of Sambir, Western Ukraine. Olena Krushynska makes an attempt to find out who St Valentine actually was and goes to Sambir to investigate.


During the past ten years or so, The Day of St Valentine, about which very little was known in Ukraine before, has gradually become an annual feature of Ukrainian life, particularly among teenagers. In fact, people of more advanced adulthood also have begun to join in, buying hearts, with inscriptions that proclaim love, of all sizes and made of different materials. Parties at night clubs and in people’s homes on February 14 raucously celebrate the feast day of a saint about which, as it turns out, so little is known. Hordes of customers fill the stores in search of souvenirs. It all looks like a minor craze but the growing scale of this temporary madness suggests that St Valentine’s is just a pretext to celebrate something that has enough reasons to be marked in a special way.

My attempt to find out more about the origins of Valentines’ Day and about who the saint actually was, brought more disappointment than clear-cut answers. I consulted encyclopedias and history books. The Catholic Encyclopedia, for example, says this: “[There are] at least three different Saint Valentines, all of them martyrs, are mentioned in the early martyrologies under date of 14 February. One is described as a priest in Rome, another as bishop of Interamna (modern Terni), and these two seem both to have suffered in the second half of the third century and to have been buried on the Flaminian Way, but at different distances from the city. In William of Malmesbury’s (11th century) time, what was known to the ancients as the Flaminian Gate of Rome and is now the Porta del Popolo, was called the Gate of St. Valentine. The name seems to have been taken from a small church dedicated to the saint which was in the immediate neighborhood. Of both these St. Valentines some sort of Acta are preserved but they are of relatively late date and of no historical value. Of the third Saint Valentine, who suffered in Africa with a number of companions, nothing further is known.”

The Catholic Church’s official list of martyrs, the Roman Martyrology, mentions seven Valentines from the third century down to the twentieth. The closer we get to the twentieth century, the more information there is available about them, but in all evidence, it is the earliest Valentines that lent their name to the day when love is so widely celebrated.

If such an authoritative sources have little to say about St Valentine, or rather Valentines, then there was not much hope for me to find anything more detailed. But I kept trying and here’s what I came up with. I wanted to find out how an obscure Christian martyr, or martyrs could have come to be associated with a lover’s day. And here’s the summery of what I could glean from different sources.

Valentine’s Day probably took its name from that priest who was martyred about AD 270 by the emperor Claudius II Gothicus. According to the legend, the priest signed a letter to a jailer’s daughter, whom he had befriended and with whom he had fallen in love, “from your Valentine.” The holiday could have had origins in the Roman festival of Lupercalia, held in mid-February. The festival, which celebrated the arrival of spring, included fertility rites and the pairing off women with men by lottery. At the end of the 5th century, Pope Gelasius I replaced Lupercalia with St. Valentine’s Day. It came to be celebrated as a day of romance from about the 14th century.

In Chaucer’s Parliament of Foules we read:

For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day

When every foul cometh there to choose his mate.

For this reason the day was looked upon as specially consecrated to lovers and as a proper occasion for writing love letters and sending lovers’ tokens. Both French and English literatures of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries contain allusions to the practice. In the Paston Letters, Dame Elizabeth Brews writes this about a match she hopes to make for her daughter (the spelling is modernized), addressing the favored suitor: “And, cousin mine, upon Monday is Saint Valentine’s Day and every bird chooses himself a mate, and if it like you to come on Thursday night, and make provision that you may abide till then, I trust to God that ye shall speak to my husband and I shall pray that we may bring the matter to a conclusion.”

The first representation of Saint Valentine appeared in the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493); alongside the woodcut portrait of Valentine the text states that he was a Roman priest martyred during the reign of Claudius II, known as Claudius Gothicus. He was arrested and imprisoned upon being caught marrying Christian couples and otherwise aiding Christians who were at the time being persecuted by Claudius in Rome.

Formal messages, or valentines, appeared in the 1500s, and by the late 1700s commercially printed cards were being used. The first commercial valentines in the United States were printed in the mid-1800s. Valentines commonly depict Cupid, the Roman god of love, along with hearts, traditionally the seat of emotion. Because it was thought that their mating season began in mid-February, birds also became a symbol of the day. Traditional gifts include candy and flowers, particularly red roses, a symbol of beauty and love. The day is very popular in the English-speaking countries, and it is also celebrated in other countries. It has expanded to expressions of affection among relatives and friends. Many schoolchildren exchange valentines with one another on this day.


St Valentine’s relics

In 1836, relics that were exhumed from the catacombs of Saint Hippolytus on the Via Tiburtina, then near (rather than inside) Rome, were identified with St Valentine; placed in a casket, they were transported to the Whitefriar Street Carmelite Church in Dublin, Ireland, to which they were donated by Pope Gregory XVI. Many tourists visit the saintly remains on St. Valentine’s Day, when the casket is carried in solemn procession to the high altar for a special Mass dedicated to young people and all those in love. Alleged relics of St. Valentine also lie at the reliquary of Roquemaure in France, in the Stephansdom in Vienna and also in Blessed John Duns Scotus’ church in the Gorbals area of Glasgow, Scotland. There is also gold reliquary bearing the words “Corpus St. Valentin, M” (Body of St. Valentine, Martyr) at The Birmingham Oratory, UK, in one of the side altars in the main church. Doing my research into St Valentine I discovered that there is a church in Ukraine — the Church of Rizdva Bohorodytsi (Birth of the Mother of God) in the Land of Lvivshchyna, that also possesses “saintly remains” of St Valentine. I felt I just had to go there and find out more about “Ukrainian Valentine.”


Exploring Sambir

I used the opportunity to take a good look at the town of Sambir. In Sambir I learned little new about St Valentine except that he was the patron saint of the Peremyshl-Sambir Eparchy (diocese) and that the relics of St Valentine were transferred to the church in May 1759 — but I enjoyed the trip.

The town is likely to have been named after a species of willows locally called sambir. It used to grow in great numbers in that area. In the fourteenth century the fortress which must have been built some time earlier, was ruled by the Polish governor Spitko. Under him, the fortress began to develop into town.

Before we proceed to the church with the relics of St Valentine, I have a curious historical aside for you. It was from Sambir that False Dmitry set forth to try to get the crown of Muscovy in the seventeenth century. I’m afraid a little digression into history to explain who this False Dmitry was, is needed here. In fact, there were three pretenders to the Russian throne, known as False Dmitry. We are interested in the first one (also called Pseudo-demetrius; in Russian: Lzhedmitry, or Dmitry Samozvanets). He claimed to be Dmitry Ivanovich, the son of Tsar Ivan IV the Terrible (reigned 1533–84). Dmitry died mysteriously in 1591 while still a child. The first False Dmitry is considered by many historians to have been Yury Otrepyev, a member of the gentry who became the monk Grigoriy. He apparently sincerely believed he was the legitimate heir to the throne. Aided by individual Lithuanian and Polish nobles, as well as by the Jesuits, the False Dmitry gathered an army of adventurers and invaded Muscovy in the fall of 1604. The False Dmitry triumphantly entered Moscow in June 1605 and was proclaimed tsar. In May 1606 Vasily Shuisky, one of the boyars who had turned against him, led a coup d’etat, murdered the first False Dmitry, and succeeded him as tsar.

Dmitry married Marina Mniszek, the daughter of Jerzy Mniszek who was the starosta (governor) of Sambir, and who encouraged Dmitry to launch his bid for the throne. Wonders of history will never cease!

The Church of Rizdva Bohorodytsi — the main reason why I came to Sambir in the first place — was built in 1738. The money for the construction was donated by Illya and Olena Komarnytsky, a wealthy Ukrainian family. This church was built at the spot where another church, a wooden one, had once stood. One of the icons from the old church, the “miracle-working icon of the Mother of God (Virgin Mary)” was preserved and placed in the new church.

I did get to see the reliquary with “the saintly remains” of St Valentine. Probably, subconsciously I sort of believed that standing close to the reliquary I’d get a message which would confirm — or deny — the authenticity of the relic. I did not get any such message, but I was grateful to St Valentine for inspiring me to come to Sambir.

My St Valentine mission completed, I decided to take a walking tour of the town and see other landmarks in Sambir. The first stop was at the building of the City Hall. In all evidence, considering its definitely Renaissance-style facade, it dates from the sixteenth century. As I was taking photographs, a polite local volunteered to show me the way to the top of the tower that rises to the height of forty meters. The panorama of the town from there proved to be as exciting as I’d expected it would be — Ploshcha (Square) Rynok, narrow streets, little parks, three churches, one of them is where St Valentine’s relics were all laid out down there for me to enjoy the sight that was more medieval than modern.

Of the other landmarks I should mention the Church of John the Baptist, the oldest in Sambir — it was built in 1530, and a three-hundred-year old Jesuit monastery (now it houses an art school).

As I was saying goodbye to Sambir, I thought that whoever St Valentine had actually been, it was a very good idea to establish one day in the year for the celebration of love.


The oldest known town seal of Sambir

that dates to 1533.


The building of the City Hall in Sambir is over three

hundred years old; the reconstruction of 1844

changed its original appearance to what it is now.


Autumnal Sambir.


The Church of Rizdva Bohorodytsi was built in 1738

with the money donated by Illya and Olena

Komarnytski, the local dignitaries.


The reliquary in the Church of Rizdva Bohorodytsi

which is believed to contain the relics of St Valentine.


One of the administrative buildings in Sambir

built in the 19th century.

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