Benedict Joseph Labre, homeless beggar and saint, was born in France on 26 March 1748 at Amettes, near Boulogne. He was the eldest of 18 children and the son of a shopkeeper. After a private education with an uncle, the parish priest at Erin, he made eleven attempts to enter various monasteries, but his mental illness meant he kept moving on.
In 1770, when he was twenty two, he experienced a calling, which he considered was given to him by God, to “abandon his country, his parents, and whatever is flattering in the world to lead a new sort of life, a life most painful, most penitential, not in a wilderness nor in a cloister, but in the midst of the world, devoutly visiting as a pilgrim the famous places of Christian devotion.”
He joined the Third Order of Saint Francis and settled on a life of poverty and pilgrimage. He first traveled to Rome on foot, subsisting on what he could get by begging. He then traveled to most of the major shrines of Europe. During these trips he would always travel on foot, sleeping in the open or in a corner of a room, with his clothes muddy and ragged. He lived on what little he was given, and often shared the little he did receive with others. His only possessions, besides his ragged clothes, were two rosaries, and three books: a New Testament, a Breviary, and The Imitation of Christ. He is reported to have talked rarely, prayed often, and accepted quietly the abuse he received.
He settled permanently in Rome in 1774, sleeping at night in the Colosseum and spending his days in the churches of Rome. He spent hours in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament in the churches of Rome, and became famous for his sanctity. He would often swoon when contemplating the crown of thorns, in particular, and, during these states, it is said he would levitate or bilocate. While the saint was in an ecstasy before an image of our Lady, he was painted by Antonio Cavallucci, and this portrait hangs in the National Gallery, Rome.
He was also said to have cured some of the other homeless he met and to have multiplied bread for them. Toward the end of his life, when he had grown severely ill, he occasionally stayed at a hospice for poor men.
In the Wednesday of Holy Week in 1783, Benedict Joseph collapsed outside Santa Maria dei Monti after attending Mass. A local butcher picked him up off the street and carried Benedict Joseph to his own nearby home, where, that evening Benedict Joseph died. He was only thirty-five. So great was the crowd thronging his funeral that troops had to be called in to maintain public order.
Within a few months of his death, more than 130 miracles ascribed to the Saint had been carefully recorded. A priest who had been his confessor published a biography, and he was canonized by Pope Leo XIII, 8 December 1881.