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Umbrian Steel Town Claims Its Beheaded Saint Was The Real Valentine

February 13, 1989

TERNI, Italy (AP) _ Led by their Communist mayor, the people of Terni have launched a crusade to reclaim St. Valentine, the patron saint of lovers who has attained greater fame abroad than in his native country.

On Sunday, the city in central Italy’s Umbria region launched a yearly award ceremony dedicated to acts of love around the world. Next year, it plans to offer free honeymoons to newlyweds.

This steel town wants its decapitated 3rd century bishop to really be its valentine.

The Roman Catholic saint for lovers has been as much a mixture of myth, religion and tradition as Easter bunnies or St. Nicholas, who eventually became a jolly red-suited Santa Claus.

The Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints says 17 Valentines are listed in the official encyclopedia of saints - including ones from Italy, France, Spain, and Germany.

″But we are relatively sure that Terni’s is the real Valentine because he is the oldest,″ says Ivani Rossi, president of the Valentian Cultural Center. He has been working to bring back what he says is ″real significance″ to the festivity rather than ″a growth in the Valentine gift industry.″

According to historical accounts from the Middle Ages, Placido, the prefect of Rome, had the spiritual head of Terni’s Christians beheaded on February 14 of the year 270 after having him imprisoned and whipped.

Valentino had a garden where, according to legend, he allowed children to play or lovers to meet. While he was jailed Valentino handed the keys of the garden to two carrier pigeons with a message inviting the children of Terni to return there during his absence.

After his martyrdom, Valentino’s body was brought back here by his followers and buried. The funeral urn was discovered in a cemetery during the 17th century and is now kept in a basilica, minus a tooth given at the time to Leopold of Austria, who venerated the saint and funded the basilica’s construction.

Benedictine monks spread the cult of the saint to Anglo-Saxon countries including England and the United States.

Although Valentino remained the patron saint of Terni, town residents - as well as most Italians - didn’t realize how famous he was becoming abroad, according to the current bishop of Terni, Franco Gualdrini.

″We found, for example, that people knew more about the American mafia ‘St. Valentine’s Day Massacre’ than about St. Valentine himself,″ Gualdrini said in an interview, referring to the Prohibition-era slaying of seven men in a Chicago garage by Al Capone’s mobsters.

″The commercial value of St. Valentine outstripped his spiritual value,″ he said. ″This was something we had to change, considering Terni had probably the world’s best known saint.″

A few years ago, the traditionally Communist administration of Terni, led by Mayor Giacomo Porazzini, decided to work with the local church on a mutually beneficial project - restoring some luster to Terni and its saint.

A tourist marketing test in Japan showed the city and the area, with spectacular waterfalls and walled medieval towns and churches, had potential appeal.

Now, more than 20,000 Japanese tourists stop at the basilica and tour the area each year - and Terni has its annual ‘love’ awards ceremony.

Among winners Sunday were Nobel Peace Prize-winner Mother Teresa of Calcutta; American Erich Segal, best-selling author of ″Love Story″; actor Peter Ustinov and an Italian rescue brigade that recently returned from the Armenian earthquake zone.

Next year, the prize ceremony will be carried on a worldwide satellite television program and the city will begin to offer free one-week honeymoons to selected newlyweds.

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