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Catholic Heroes… St. Nuno Alvares Pereira

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St. Ignatius of Loyola was injured in the Battle of Pamplona in 1521, which changed the focus of his life. He has influenced millions with his Spiritual Exercises. St. Francis of Assisi went to Perugia in 1202 and was captured and held for one year — this changed his life, leading him to lead a life of poverty and ministry to the people of God. Joan of Arc routed the English besieging France in the fifteenth century, which helped end the Hundred Years War. St. Nuno Alvares Pereira also fought bravely and successfully before he retired to a religious life.
Nuno had an inauspicious beginning as the illegitimate son of Brother Alvaro Goncalves Pereira, who was the Hospitaller Knight of St. John of Jerusalem and prior of Crato. His mother, Donna Iria Goncalves do Carvalhal, gave birth to Nuno on June 24, 1360 at Crato in central Portugal.
Before a year had passed, Nuno was legitimized by royal decree, enabling him to receive the education expected for royal children. Thus, Nuno was prepared to live and act as a knight.
When Nuno reached the age of 13 three things happened: He became a page to Queen Leonor, he was received at court, and he was made a knight.
Alvaro, his father, arranged a marriage for Nuno to a rich widow, so he was married at the age of 16 to Donna Leonor de Alvim. Of the three children they had, two boys died shortly after birth and the girl, Beatrice, married Afonso, first Duke of Braganca, son of King Joao I.
Before his marriage, however, Nuno was already successful in military campaigns. He was instrumental in halting a Castilian invasion which he downplayed as a minor skirmish.
When Nuno was 23 years old, King Fernando I of Portugal died with his only heir being Beatrice, who was married to King Juan of Castile. To ensure that Castile could not annex Portugal, the nobles united to place John, Master of Aviz and stepbrother of King Fernando, on the throne. John was also the son of Peter I of Portugal.
In April 1384, after the Battle of Atoleiros, Aviz named Nuno Protector and second Constable of Portugal. This meant that Nuno became supreme commander of Portugal’s armies. Aviz also made him the third Count of Ourem even though he was only 24 years old.
When the Castilian army besieged Lisbon in 1384, Nuno used guerrilla warfare to try to dislodge them, but the spreading plague drove the Castilians away.
When Aviz was officially recognized as King of Portugal in April 1385, King Juan of Castile invaded again to support the claim of Beatrice to the throne. Although Nuno was leading the fight in northern Portuguese cities which supported King Juan, he still fed the poor and hungry without prejudice at his personal expense.
Nuno also set a sterling example of virtue and holiness for his men. He not only had a deep love of the Eucharist, but also a great devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, the first tabernacle of Christ.
Fasting in Mary’s honor on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays was a regular part of Nuno’s life. He also fasted on the vigil of her feasts. His military banner included her image as well as that of the cross, and those of the knights James and George.
In addition, he built many monasteries and churches. These included the Carmelite Church in Lisbon and the Church of Our Lady of Victories at Batalha. This church Nuno erected in commemoration of the victory in the 1385 Battle of Aljubarrota. Today it is considered one of the most important Gothic sites in Portugal.
In the Battle of Aljubarrota, on August 14, 1385, Nuno led only 6,500 volunteers against a well-trained Castilian force of more than 30,000 men. Nuno attributed this marvelous Portuguese victory to the Blessed Virgin Mary, whose name he had inscribed on his sword.
Nuno received more honors after these victories when King John I made him second Count of Arraiolos and seventh Count of Barcelos. Thus Nuno held all of the count positions available at that time. This was made possible when those who supported the Castilians were stripped of their titles.
King John I also bestowed Nuno with the Major Majordomo of the Realm — one who could administer business and manage affairs in the king’s name.
To ensure the ultimate defeat of the Castilians, John I and Nuno pursued them and once again won victory over a much larger force in the battle of Valverde.
Nuno kept a special watch over King Juan of Castile until he died in 1390. Then with the end of hostilities, Nuno gave most of his fortune to the veterans.
In the meantime, Nuno’s wife died in 1387. He never wanted to marry again and vowed to live a celibate life. He continued to serve the king faithfully until 1423 when he entered the Carmelite convent in Lisbon — one he had built. He did this in fulfillment of a vow, taking the name Brother Nuno of St. Mary. At that time, he also disposed of the remainder of his possessions.
Nuno had reached the height of power being an agent of the king, head of the military, and a wealthy man with many titles. But these were not the things he valued. Finding a priceless pearl, he entered the Carmelites to find that treasure in Heaven that will never decay.
A life of holiness, his great love for God and man, brought him to the height of a faithful man in serving God by a religious life.
As much as Nuno wanted to live as a contemplative with the Carmelites, his quest was thwarted by Don Duarte, the king’s son. However, Nuno stayed as a Carmelite taking the lowest position as a lay brother where he served the poor by distributing food and responding quickly to any he found in need.
Thus, he ended his life in the service of Christ, and his beloved patron, the Blessed Virgin Mary. In the poor he recognized the face of Jesus.
He died on Easter Sunday, April 1, 1431. News of his death quickly spread, bringing cries of “O Santo Condestavel.”
On July 8, 2008 Pope Benedict XVI approved the beatification of St. Nuno of St. Mary. He was canonized at St. Peter’s Square on April 26, 2009. His feast is celebrated on April 1.
Dear St. Nuno, pray for us. You achieved great success in the world during the era of knights, defending the rights of your king. Yet you always put God first in your life, knowing that things eternal were much more important than temporal pleasures and victories. Assist us in our final days always to be close to God and His people, to serve Him and them, with all of our hearts. Amen.

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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)

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