Born in Venice, Italy, 1481; died Somascha, Italy, February 8, 1537; canonized in 1767, and in 1928 declared patron saint of orphans and abandoned children by Pope Pius XI; feast day formerly July 20.
Son of a distinguished Venetian family, at age 15 Jerome Emiliani ran away from home and his mother Eleanor Mauroceni after the death of his father Angelo. He became a soldier in the army of the Republic and commander of the League of Cambrai forces at the fortress of Castelnuovo in the Italian mountains near Treviso. The Venetians took the fortress and chained Jerome in a dungeon. Until that time, Jerome had led a careless, irreligious life. Now he sanctified his sufferings by prayer and conversion to God. In circumstances that appear miraculous, he escaped after praying to our Lady, carrying his chains with him, and--thanking God for this in a church at Treviso--hung his chains on the church wall in happiness.
His gratitude inspired the rest of his life. He dedicated himself to the Blessed Virgin and reformed his carefree lifestyle. He became mayor of Treviso because of his brilliant defense of Castelnuovo, and later returned to Venice to oversee his nephews' education and to pursue his own theological studies. In 1518, he was ordained to the priesthood in Venice when the city was suffering an appalling plague.
Jerome devoted himself to relieving as much suffering as he could. His heart especially ached for the abandoned children who were suffering particularly, since starvation set them doubly at risk. Taking as many as he could into his own house, he fed and clothed them, nursed them back to health, and taught them the Christian faith. At night, he buried the dead who had collapsed in the streets. He caught the plague (spotted fever) himself, but was strong enough to recover.
In 1531, Jerome resolved to give himself and all that he owned to God's service. He established orphanages in six Italian towns (Venice, Brescia, Bergamo, Como, and two others), a hospital in Verona, and a home for repentant prostitutes. About 1532 with two other priests, he founded the Congregation of Somaschi (from the town of Somasca in Lombardy where they started), a society of clerks regular devoted primarily to the care and instruction of orphans, although it also instructed young children. At Somaschi he founded a seminary for those entering his congregation. Jerome is said to have been the first to teach children Christian doctrine with a question-and-answer technique. The society gained papal approval in 1540.
His attentive care to the poor of Somascha led them to attribute to him the gift of healing. He tried to share their lives, even working with them in the fields while talking to them of God. He continued to care for the sick, regardless of his own health, until he succumbed a second time to the plague, which killed him (Attwater, Benedictines, Bentley, Delaney, Farmer, Sandoval, Schamoni, Walsh, White).
In art Saint Jerome's emblem is a ball and chain which are always near him. At times the chain may be in his hand, a child near him, and the Virgin and Child appearing to him, or he may be shown tending sick children or delivering a possessed child (Roeder, White). He is venerated in Somasca, Lombardy (Roeder).
Saint Jerome is the patron of orphans and abandoned children (Bentley, Sandoval).