The patron saint of firefighters is St Florian. He was a Christian who rose to become a Noricum legion commander in the Roman army. He is known for creating the first organized regiment of firefighters in the Roman empire.
He was prominent at a time when Christianity was frowned upon in the Roman Empire and, when he refused to persecute Christians under his command, he was put to death.
St Florian is often depicted today wearing a green tunic – the tunic of the Roman firefighters – and putting out a fire using a pitcher of water. It is said that he managed to dispel a large fire once with just one pitcher of water.
He is also recognizable for his cross – St Florian’s Cross – which is widely used as the emblem and logo for many fire departments around the world, including the International Association of Firefighters.
Many Christians today call upon St Florian to protect them from fire.
Life of St Florian
St Florian was born in Aelium Cetium, a Roman city in present-day Austria (he is now the official patron saint of Austria).
He started a career as a Roman soldier, entering the ranks as an ordinary legionary. He was recognized for his talents and quickly rose the ranks to become a legion commander in Noricum, which was located in present day Austria-Slovenia.
As a commander, Florian trained the first organized firefighting unit within the Roman army. Before this point, firefighting was often the job of slaves. But Florian believed in the need for an elite firefighting unit within the army. The firefighters were recognizable by their green tunics.
Florian’s demise came when he was ordered to carry out the persecution of Christians which took place across the Roman empire at this time. Roman emperor Diocletian carried out what was known as the Diocletianic Persecution. This persecution involved forcing Christians to cease their religious practices and make ritual sacrifices to the Roman gods.
Word got back to Diocletian that Florian was not carrying out his orders. Diocletian sent Aquilius, his aide, to investigate. Aquilius asked Florian to make a sacrifice to the Roman gods to prove his allegiance to the Roman way of life. He refused. He is said to have proclaimed to Aquilius:
“Tell the Emperor that I am a Christian and will suffer the same fate as the Christians.”
Aquilius tried a second time to convince Florian to give up his faith, offering him a promotion in return for compliance. Florian again refused.
Florian was then whipped for his non-compliance. But his response was again defiant – claiming “a few scratches” was a sacrifice he would happily make for his faith.
It was then decided that this rebelliousness must be punished as a message to other Christians.
Florian was sentenced to death.
He was originally to be burned at the stake. Florian was taken to a pier, But Florian is said to have proclaimed to his captors:
“If you [burn me], I will climb to heaven on the flames.”
So Aquilius changed his mind and instead had Florian thrown into the River Enns to be drowned.
Florian’s body was later recovered by Christians in the town who gave him a Christian burial.
Veneration and Celebration
6 Centuries later, somewhere in the first half of the 10th Century, a monastery was built beside Florian’s grave, and a town named after him was established in that location.
Some time after this, his body was exhumed and brought to an Abbey in Linz, Austria.
Florian became a saint in 1138 when Pope Lucius III agreed to a request from King Casimir III. His relics were sent to Poland and, ever since, he has been the patron saint of Poland and Upper Austria.
But his famous achievements as a firefighter meant he also quickly became the patron saint of firefighters. People would call out his name for protection from fires; and when a church to his name in Krakow survived a fire in 1528 despite the neighboring houses burning, he became regarded as the protector of Christians from fires.
Today, A statue of Florian that was unveiled in Vienna in 1935 stands in the Austrian museum of Firefighters.
But, perhaps most recognizably, his cross (Saint Florian’s Cross) is used as the international symbol of firefighters. Firefighting departments around the world use the cross as their emblem, which is emblazoned on jackets and fire engines. Some people mistake it for the Maltese Cross, which at times is also claimed to be the firefighter cross.
He is also the patron saint of chimney sweeps, soap makers and brewers.
For many Christians, belief that a patron saint is their advocate in heaven remains strong. You will find many devout firefighters carrying necklaces or trinkets on them that invoke Florian’s name in the hope that he will deliver protection for them.
May 4 is St Florian Day and, since 1999, has also been International Firefighters Day. Spare a thought for St Florian and all our firefighters on this day and celebrate how all of them are watching over us and keeping us safe.
- The International Association of Firefighters – Look at their emblem, which is St Florian’s Cross