St. Rocco's story dates from the time when the Black Death
first ravaged Europe. The epidemic arrived in October 1347
when a ship full of sick and dying sailors docked in Messina,
Italy. Physicians were mystified by the sailors' symptoms:
They sweated profusely, coughed up blood and had large black
swellings in their armpits and groins. All the sailors died,
and then the mysterious illness passed to the townspeople.
From Messina the plague spread to every part of Europe - even
to remote Iceland and Greenland - taking the lives of 20
million people within four years. For the next three
centuries Europe would be afflicted by periodic outbreaks of
Rocco was born into an aristocratic family in Montpelier,
France. Before he reached his 20th birthday his father and
mother both died, leaving him a large inheritance. He left
his estate under the management of his uncle and set off on
foot on a pilgrimage to Rome.
It appears that Rocco stayed in Rome for at least two years.
About the year 1373 he began walking home. When he reached
Piacenza, he discovered that plague had just broken out in
the city; those inhabitants who were not dying of the
epidemic were in a state of panic. Moved by the suffering of
the sick and the dying, Rocco went to one of the city's
hospitals where he volunteered as a nurse. It is said that he
cured hundreds of plague victims by making the sign of the
cross on their feverish foreheads.
One morning Rocco woke up very ill. In his armpits and groin
he found the tell-tale black swellings of the Black Death.
Rather than infect anyone else he dragged himself outside the
city and into the woods where he could die alone. Rocco had
just made himself a bed of leaves when a dog trotted up to
him with a large loaf of bread in its mouth. Every day the
dog returned with a fresh loaf. Incredibly, Rocco recovered.
He went back to Piacenza and took up his work in the hospital
Thanks to the dog that kept Rocco from starving, all dogs
have St. Rocco as their patron. The dog with the loaf of
bread in its mouth has become St. Rocco's emblem, appearing
beside him in virtually every picture or statue of the saint.
Years of living outdoors and his bout of the plague must have
altered Rocco's appearance because when he arrived home in
Montpelier his uncle did not recognize him. He was arrested
as a spy and imprisoned; five years later Rocco died in his
cell. When his body was being washed for burial the
undertakers found a distinctive cross-shaped birthmark on
Rocco's chest. Rocco's uncle realized that the "spy" had been
his nephew after all. To make amends for the wrong they had
done to him, the city officials of Montpelier gave Rocco an
elaborate state funeral. It was reported that countless
numbers of the sick and the infirm were healed after touching