July 27, 2006– Vol. 41, No. 50
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African saint’s sacrifice an enduring example of faith

Virgil Wright

To most people, “St. Moritz” conjures up images of a jet-set Swiss ski resort, a James Bond world of sleek chalets, titled glitterati and martinis shaken, not stirred.

In fact, the Alpine playground traces its name to an African soldier-saint who gave his life for his faith at the dawn of Christendom.

For more than 1,000 years, St. Moritz was Christianity’s muscular martyr, pure of heart and blameless in spirit, whose Nubian profile graced sculptures and paintings and whose sacrifice inspired the chivalric ideals of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.

If an award-winning Boston television producer has his way, the legend of St. Moritz will be recaptured from the dustbin of history to inspire a new generation to turn away from violence and self-indulgence and live up to the principles of fidelity, humility and service personified by the saint.

“I would love to see St. Moritz embraced by the African American community and presented to kids as not just a symbol but a shining example of how to live,” says Mario Valdes, who has researched, written and produced television specials about black history and culture for PBS, WBGH-TV’s “Say Brother,” the History Channel and others.

“Just look at the appalling carnage on the streets today. Young people need the high idealism and values embodied by St. Moritz,” adds Valdes, citing the spate of recent shootings on Boston’s streets. “A concerted effort is needed to introduce our youth to their own legacy.”

St. Moritz, more commonly known as St. Maurice, was a Roman centurion, born in the upper Nile in the third century A.D. He rose through the ranks to command the celebrated “Theban Legion” composed entirely of the saint’s African countrymen — all of them devout Christians.

In the year 286, Moritz and his famed 6,666 legionnaires accompanied the Emperor Maximian in a march from Rome to Gaul to suppress a revolt at the edge of the empire. After a perilous crossing of the Alps, the legion encamped in the Rhone valley south of Lake Geneva in what is today the French-speaking Swiss village of Saint-Maurice-en-Valais.

The emperor commanded the entire army to offer living sacrifices of Christian captives to the pagan gods for the success of their expedition, but Moritz, citing fidelity to his Christian faith, refused and withdrew his forces to Aguanam, three leagues from the main encampment.

“We are your soldiers, but are servants of the true God,” Moritz told the emperor. “We have taken an oath to God before we took one to you. You can place no confidence in our second oath, should we violate the first.”

Enraged, Maximian ordered every tenth man slain. The Theban Legion remained unmoved. A second decimation was ordered. Finally, every man fell to the sword, with none among the battle-tested warriors offering any resistance.

During the Middle Ages, the stone where St. Moritz lay down his head drew hordes of pilgrims on his feast day, celebrated today on September 22. Hundreds of parish churches and towns were named after him, including a remote Alpine village destined to become the chic St. Moritz, a luxury resort known for sun-splashed ski slopes and elegant nightlife.

Up until the late Renaissance, St. Moritz’s martyrdom figured among the highest acts of faith venerated by Christians. He was the patron saint of the Holy Roman Empire, of Austria as well as the Papal Swiss Guards in the Vatican — the protector whose sword, when held by the blade, becomes a cross.

During an interview, Valdes eagerly spreads out photographs of statues, mosaics and paintings with St. Moritz’s African features nobly portrayed by centuries of artists.

Valdes’s research clearly shows a shift in the depiction of St. Moritz after the advent of the European slave trade, as traffickers in human flesh and their sponsors sought to dehumanize their captives, wiping away any images of Africans as noble or spiritually gifted.

“The truth of St. Moritz began to recede,” says Valdes. “How could European Christians, in good conscience, slaughter millions in the Middle Passage if they were seen as co-equal heirs of Christ’s covenant? How could they be thrust into the foul holds of coffin ships if they were not just the co-equals of European Christians but Christ’s own companions and martyrs?”

Even today, St. Moritz, whose spear was said to be made from the lance that pierced Christ’s side, is often depicted as a European in spite of growing awareness of Africans being systematically overlooked, devalued and ignored in history books.

While applauding Valdes’s commitment to harnessing black history to shape the minds of African American youth, some question whether such an effort can overcome the formidable barriers of alienation, poor education and poverty.

“The story is well worth telling. Whether it could turn around the lives of kids is another story,” says the Rev. Dr. Wesley Roberts, pastor of Peoples Baptist Church in Boston and a founder of the Ten Point Coalition, formed to combat youth violence.

“If the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s life doesn’t do it, then I’m not sure how a saint who lived almost 2,000 years ago could succeed,” Rev. Dr. Roberts said.

But that won’t stop Valdes from trying. An active member of St. Paul Church in Cambridge, he fervently believes in the power of the Catholic saint to transform a generation more interested in satisfying worldly appetites than in nourishing the spirit.

As a child growing up in the Central American colony of British Honduras, renamed Belize after independence from Britain, the tales of Camelot captured Valdes’s imagination — as they did for millions around the world. Valdes’s racially diverse homeland, a steamy West Indian melting pot of English, Spanish, African, and Indian cultures, was as close as a book to the oak forests, icy lakes, and daring quests of the mythical knights.

For the bookish Valdes, the romantic lure of the court of King Arthur began its arc toward St. Moritz when he learned in his late teens that his own ancestry included African blood. That discovery prompted a relentless inquiry into black history that continued once he moved to Boston in the late 1960s to work for WGBH-TV.

“It was not much talked about,” says Valdes of the revelation, speaking in a soft British accent as he strokes his whiskers. His father, a newspaper publisher with Cuban blood, never brought up the topic.

“Discussion of racial issues in Belize was kept to a minimum. I found out about it after my father’s death from my mother, who told me my grandfather’s grandfather was African. Looking at my grandfather’s portrait in my grandmother’s living room — his [curly] hair, flat nose, and blue eyes — I used to think he looked like Einstein. I thought he might be Jewish.”

Valdes, who has produced documentary material about Alessandro d’Medici, the “Black Duke” of 15th century Florence, and Jan Matzelinger, the Afro-Dutch inventor of the shoe-lasting machine that enriched Boston merchants, is currently working on a lengthy documentary about St. Moritz. Meanwhile, he regularly contributes his scholarship to programs about the vaunted “Spear of Destiny” reportedly carried by the African saint into battle.

One of Valdes’s greatest regrets was seeing Steven Spielberg substitute the spear for another relic as the central device in his movie “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” which was based on a book about Nazi Germany’s efforts to obtain the spear and harness its mythical powers for evil. “A great opportunity was missed to inform the world about the spear, its provenance, and its connection to St. Moritz,” he says wistfully.

The actual spear, passed down to Charlemagne and the succeeding line of Holy Roman Emperors, fell into the hands of the Nazis during World War II and now rests under heavy guard in a museum in Vienna. A Latin inscription in the hilt identifies the weapon as having belonged to St. Moritz. No definitive identification is possible, but many experts have dated the lance, and a nail embedded into the blade, to the Roman era.

“There is so much to learn about history from St. Moritz,” says Valdes. “What our youth would gain is not just knowledge, but pride.”

This altarpiece painting of “Three Companions of St. Moritz” by Jehner van Orlamunde dates back to 1511, and is housed at the Church of St. Moritz in Halle, Germany. Reportedly the inspiration for the ideals of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, St. Moritz has graced many works of art over the centuries. (Erint Images photo)

Producer Valdes holds a 16th century portrait of St. Moritz painted by the premier artist of the Northern German renaissance, Matthias Gruenwald. (Erint Images photo)

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