Flying Saints: Who is watching over pilots?

By ERIC CHANDLER, For General Aviation News

Like every cheapskate pilot on a layover, I grabbed the free newspaper, which featured an article about Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, the patron saint of pilots.

I was glad to find out who’s on my team. I safely finished my trip and decided to thank the patron saint of my profession by learning more about her.

Thérèse was a French woman from Lisieux who became a Carmelite nun at the age of 15 and died young from tuberculosis. She was known as the “Little Flower” and canonized very soon after her death. She felt she could best serve God with “the little way” — doing what she could for people in the small details of life. Mother Teresa of Calcutta even took her name to honor her. That’s all very interesting, but unsatisfying. I resolved to learn why she was connected to flying.

I got more than I bargained for. It turns out there are actually three patron saints of aviation: St. Thérèse, St. Joseph of Cupertino and Our Lady of Loreto. The latter two were a lot easier to figure out.

St. Joseph was an Italian Franciscan priest who lived in the 17th century. He levitated. Poking him with pins and burning embers wouldn’t stop his soaring. “The Flying Friar” would only land when his superiors ordered him down. Like a lot of pilots, he was very dedicated to flight. Okay, St. Joseph, I understand why Pope Clement XIII gave you the nod in 1767.

Our Lady of Loreto also makes a good aviation saint. There is a humble house in the Italian city of Loreto that’s enclosed inside a cathedral. This house is supposed to be where the Annunciation occurred when the angel Gabriel told Mary she would bear the son of God. Angels reputedly carried this house from the Holy Lands through the air to Italy in 1294. All of these events, combined with some good lobbying by the Italian Air Force, made her a shoo-in to be the patron saint of air travelers by order of Pope Benedict XV in 1920.

Photo from The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles  THE PATRON SAINT OF PILOTS: This oil on canvas painting by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo depicts “The Miracle of the Holy House of Loreto.” Our Lady of Loreto is just one of three saints looking out for pilots.

Photo from The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. This oil on canvas painting by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo depicts “The Miracle of the Holy House of Loreto.” Our Lady of Loreto is just one of three saints looking out for pilots.

Our Lady of Loreto flies the highest of the three saints. Many references claim Charles Lindbergh carried her medallion across the Atlantic. Italian Umberto Nobile carried her medallion over the North Pole in the dirigible “Norge” in 1926. He visited Loreto to thank her and paid her back by helping put out a fire in the basilica while he was there. Astronaut James McDivitt carried her medallion on the Apollo 9 space flight in March 1969.

There is a chapel in Loreto that has a painting depicting American astronauts and an image of the angels bearing the Holy House of Loreto. This building is sometimes called the American chapel or the aviation chapel.

St. Therese even visited the cathedral of Our Lady of Loreto on her way to Rome to seek an audience with the Pope to plead her case to become a nun.

None of this gets me any closer to my answer about Thérèse of Lisieux. She describes herself as a “little bird” in her autobiography and she’s also the patron saint of the missions. In the early 20th century, flying would’ve been one of the ways missionaries traveled to the far-flung outposts of the church. Maybe that’s the reason.

I’d like to follow in the footsteps of previous visitors to Loreto, including Mozart, Descartes and St. Thérèse. Maybe the images of flight in the American chapel there would give me a clue about her link to the sky.

Lately, I fly military airplanes. While I still don’t know why St. Thérèse of Lisieux is a patron saint of aviation, I do know one thing: When it was a dark night over Iraq, I was glad there were three flying saints checking my 6 o’clock instead of just one.

Eric Chandler flies F-16s with the Minnesota Air National Guard in Duluth. He’s made two trips to Iraq with the 148th Fighter Wing Bulldogs. He has been on military leave from United Airlines since Sept. 11.


  1. Marian says

    When searching for a medal for my airline pilot husband, I learned from our local Catholic bookstore of the thee patron saints of pilots, but even the sisters at the bookstore did not know why St. Therese is a patron saint of pilots. Nevertheless, when I visited Lisieux and the home and convent of St. Therese, I bought a medal for my husband. No one I spoke to in France even knew why St. Therese is associated with pilots. When I got home from France and did more research on the web, I found your article which I am giving to my husband along with his medal. Thank you so much for your article. God bless you always!

  2. Melanie says

    Why is St. Therese of Lisieux (1873–1897) a patron of aviators?

    In the early years of the twentieth century, St. Therese’s spiritual testament Story of a Soul became a sensation in Europe and, later, around the world, bringing Therese a legion of devotees. Students of Therese’s life would eventually call this period the “storm of glory,” because of all of the favors from heaven it was reported that Therese obtained for those petitioning her intercession. During this time, World War I broke out and many soldiers on both sides reported seeing visions of a young nun—Therese had not yet been canonized—comforting wounded men of various nationalities along the battle lines. In response to this, many soldiers began carrying pictures of Therese with them into battle. She became a special favorite of French pilots, and this is where her intercession for aviators began.

  3. Penny says

    Eric, My son has worn a medal for x-country/track throughout his high school athletic years. He has traded in the wings on his feet and is presently in flight school and will be flying solo soon. This past week, he turned 18 and received acceptance into Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Daytona, FL. He’ll enter in Fall ’14. I’ve been looking for a new medal for when he’s flying high, far from any safety I can provide. While St. Christopher will always protect travelers (and athletes), I’m delighted to read your story. Thank you for writing about the spiritual side of piloting and offering grounded loved ones belief that our prayers do, in fact, fly with you. Merry Christmas! Fly Safe and Fly Fast!

  4. Michelle says

    Hey thanks for writing this… I have a few friends who fly in the military, so this article was extremely helpful. Although, now I’m curious about your question on St. Therese… and making me what to pilgrimage to Loreto!  

  5. Jim says

    Great article. As an aviator, I am interested in this and it helps as my kids school will be doing an all saints celebration – provides a saint to become.

    I too am glad there are three saints out helping out.

  6. Mark says

    Thank you for your service to our country. I’m an occasional general aviation pilot who has been trying to figure out the connection between St Therese and aviation as well. I think I found it tonight and also stumbled across your article here. See the following paragraph quoted from this website:

    “In the early 1900s, Therese’s autobiography, The Story of a Soul, developed widespread fame in Europe and eventually around the world. This time period is called the “storm of glory” because it was during this time that people asking her for favors from Heaven reported her intercession. World War I was starting at this time and soldiers on both sides and of various nationalities reported seeing visions of a young nun comforting wounded men during battle. At this time, Therese had not yet been canonized. Because of these visions, many soldiers started to carry pictures of Therese with them into battle, especially French pilots, who favored her. One even painted a picture of her on his wing!”

  7. Valery says

    I was looking on the internet to see if there is a patron saint for aviators and came upon your article. Found it very interesting. My 18 yr old son is going for his private pilot license and like any mother, I worry…..
    I’m going to try to find at least one medallion of one of the saints for him. I also forwarded this article to him.

  8. Karen O'Koniewski says

    Eric, I came across your story while trying to get a gift for my pilot huband. He lost his patron saint medal and said he’d like a new one for his birthday. Only I forgot who the saint was. Like you, I did a search and came up with either St. Joseph or Our Lady of Lareto, hadn’t even heard of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux.
    I like your idea so much, I’m getting him all three to watch over him and his crew. He flies a KC-135R (and a desk) for the Illinois Air National Guard out of Scott AFB. Thanks so much for sharing your research!
    Karen, A Pilot’s Wife

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