Despite technology, drivers look to St. Christopher for safekeeping

Tribune Newspapers

Crash-prevention technologies keep evolving, from automatic emergency braking to blind spot detection, but many drivers believe in a different kind of power — St. Christopher — to keep them safe on the roads.

With crashes killing about 35,200 people in 2015 and injuring tens of thousands more, according to the National Safety Council, an untold number of drivers in this country and elsewhere in the world wouldn't think of getting behind the wheel without a medallion, visor clip, keychain or other item bearing Christopher's image. Some are true believers in his protective powers; others just don't want to take any chances. Countless more simply appreciate the often-exquisite renderings of the patron saint of travelers, almost always depicted with a child perched on his shoulder, in cloisonne, gold plate, silver or other metals.

Actor Clark Gable had a medallion, personalized with his initials, on the glovebox in his 1957 Mercedes. Jacques Vaucher, owner of l'art et l'automobile, an automotive art gallery and auction house in Harper, Texas, is the third generation of his family to put the image in their race cars as well as their street cars. And Dannielle Schmidt, of Costa Mesa, Calif., would put badges in the vintage Porsches she and her husband own — if he'd let her make screw holes in the dashboards.

Travelers' guardians

The travel protections people use take many forms, though St. Christopher is the best known. Jews may recite the Traveler's Prayer, which says, in part: "May it be your will … that you should lead us in peace and direct our steps in peace, and guide us in peace, and support us in peace, and cause us to reach our destination in life, joy and peace." Others believe that amethysts, signs of the Zodiac, quotes from the Quran and Buddhist goddesses offer protection. And blessings of motorcycles and vehicles are offered for groups or individuals.

Leyla Alyanak, who blogs at traveled with a froggy green tin cup she called Kermit. "For some of us," she wrote, "carrying a travel amulet … provides that extra little bit of comfort. It might even boost our courage a little."

The Catholic order, Oblates of St. Francis de Sales, erected a statue of Mary, Our Lady of the Wayside, in Childs, Md., and started Mary's Travelers, whose members pledge to drive defensively, keep their vehicles mechanically safe, pray before trips, and pray for themselves and other travelers.

Beverly Roberts, whose business offers a medal in the shape of a motorcycle, says purchases peak in the spring with confirmations and first Communions, but also are popular for other memorable times.

"Sometimes it's because a person has died and they want a St. Christopher for the coffin, or for someone feeling sadness or sickness," Roberts said.

Nicholas Cole, director of marketing for The Catholic Company, a private firm in Charlotte, N.C., unaffiliated with the church, says Catholics and non-Catholics alike use the talismans as reminders to drive safely.

The company's website says, "Many drivers have attributed miraculous escapes from auto accidents due to invoked protection of the patron of travelers, St. Christopher." Medallions are a favorite gift to 16-year-olds as they start driving, he said.

Safety in art

That is exactly how Bruce Meyer, founding chairman of Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, fell in love with the image.

"Friends gave me one for my car when I was 16, and I also was a surfer, and surfers all wore medals," Meyer said. "I'm not a devout Catholic, but I love the graphics, and there's probably a touch of superstition."

He tries to match the medallions, which traditionally are affixed to the dashboard, by color and period to such vintage cars as his 1929 Bentley, and then makes a final selection based on attractiveness. When he bought Clark Gable's Mercedes, a medal already was on the glovebox.

"I'm very visual. It's got to be good-looking to add an attractive element to the dash," Meyer said.

Schmidt, too, values the creativity, and owns six or seven St. Christopher medals from the art deco and art nouveau eras.

"I saw one in a case and bought it because I liked how it looked," said Schmidt, whose husband, Steve, runs a Porsche restoration shop. "I'm not Catholic, but they add style to the cars." She has one in her vintage Mini Cooper.

To stay true to tradition, David Cooper, president of Cooper Technica, who restores 1930s and 1940s European cars in Chicago, was asked to secure a St. Christopher medallion for a 1946 Alfa-Romeo 6C 2500 Supersport. When the vehicle came into the shop, it had one on the steering wheel, only the wheel wasn't original to the car, he said, so he found two medals — one small for the correct wheel and a larger one for the dash.

"Both have cars as part of the image," Cooper said, "and that I liked. He (the owner) will choose when he comes later this year."

History of St. Christopher

The allure of St. Christopher has endured even though the Roman Catholic Church removed his feast day from the official liturgical calendar in 1969. He typically is portrayed as a gentle giant who, legend has it, was called upon to help people cross a turbulent river. One passenger was the Christ child, who identified himself only after growing heavier and heavier on his bearer's shoulder, as if to test the man. Afterward, Christopher's staff was thrust into the ground and grew into a palm tree. He proselytized about this "miracle," and his beliefs led to his being beheaded in 251 A.D.

In the centuries that followed, the image of a venerable, bearded man carrying a small child was engraved on coins, statues of St. Christopher were erected at entrances to churches and public buildings, and parishes and congregations in many countries were named after him. In 1904, an article in the Journal of the British Archaeological Association said there were more wall paintings of St. Christopher in England than of any other religious figure except the Virgin Mary.

His power — and the beauty and vitality of medals engraved with his visage — are very meaningful to Vaucher of l'art et l'automobile.

"St. Christopher is my god of the road," Vaucher said.

Kay Manning is a freelance writer.

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