Originally, the city of Barcelona had two patron virgins from the time of the Roman persecutions: Saint Eulalia, who is buried in a spectacular sarcophagus in the crypt below the high altar of the Cathedral, and her contemporary Saint Madrona who, sadly, has now been almost forgotten. There was once an enormous Franciscan monastery dedicated to St. Madrona, “Madrona” was a common girl’s name in old record books, and her relics were part of elaborate processions. Now all that remains to her memory is a parish church in the old slum district, and very small chapel on the side of the mountain of Montjuich, where she used to live. It is the latter structure that this entry deals with.
Madrona was a young girl from the Roman colony of Barcino, who lived on Montjuch, the mountain which suddenly rises in the SW corner of the city and dips its toes in the Mediterranean. The story is that she was orphaned in her teens and turned to the new Christian community for assistance. Her uncle, not wanting his niece to come under the influence of this suspicious religion, adopted her and took her away to live with him in Thessalonica. This did no good, for Madrona became a Christian, and was martyred under the persecutions of Diocletian in around 300 A.D.
Her relics were mentioned as having been enshrined in a monastery dedicated to her in Thessalonica, where some scholars believe St. Madrona actually hailed from. They disappeared from there in 726, but reappeared again more than a century later and were brought to Barcelona in about 892 A.D., under miraculous circumstances. The original plan was to have them interred in Marseilles, but according to pious stories a series of storms blew the ship bearing her relics further and further westward, until they arrived in St. Madrona’s hometown of Barcelona.
The first documentary mention of a popular chapel dedicated to St. Madrona on the site of her former home comes from 1403, but it is certain that some structure existed here prior to this date. During its history the little building and its relics went through a number of hands, including the Augustinians, Benedictines, Capuchins, Franciscans, Servites, and others. In 1563, for example, the chapel was offered to the Capuchins as a base from which to found a monastery dedicated to the saint.
The relics of St. Madrona were originally kept in the little church, which was later augmented with a larger chapel and monastery, and were often brought out in procession to invoke the aid of the saint when war, pestilence, or other calamities threatened. In fact, there is mention of her relics bringing an end to crippling drought on five separate occasions, most recently in 1651. The custom was to take St. Madrona down from her mountain home to the Cathedral, where she would “visit” with St. Eulalia at the Cathedral, though in essence as a sort of captive. When the rains returned, she would be returned to her home up on Montjuich.
In the early 18th century after the convent and church (but not the chapel) on Montjuich were destroyed during wartime, the relics were temporarily moved to the Cathedral while a large new Capuchin convent dedicated to St. Madrona was built along the Ramblas in downtown Barcelona. This too, was later destroyed, in part during the Napoleonic wars, and then later virtually entirely as a result of Leftist insurrections in the 19th century. The spot which it occupied was eventually replaced with the public square known as the Plaça Reial.
In 1835 after the destruction of the Capuchin monastery, the relics of St. Madrona came into the custody first of the Church of St. Michael next to the city hall. When this church was demolished in order to expand the building, the relics were moved to a parish church dedicated to St. Madrona in the Poble Sec, the working-class district at the foot of Montjuich. (What happened to them subsequently will be treated in a later post dealing with that parish.)
In the late 19th/early 20th century, as Barcelona began to rediscover and appreciate its medieval past, many of the small hermitages in the hills around the outskirts of the city were still standing, albeit in various states of disrepair. The land surrounding the little chapel of St. Madrona was purchased by the Peris Mencheta family, whose head at the time was in charge of cultural affairs for the Barcelona City Council, and the building was restored in 1905. Today it is used primarily as a venue for baptisms and weddings, and is only open to the public on St. Madrona’s feast day of March 15th. In fact there is a saying in Catalan that the best of the sausages made during winter, and which are ready to eat in the spring after curing, are those eaten on her feast day.