El Santet del Poblenou: a popular figure of devotion for 120 years

At Poblenou Cemetery, there is one grave that attracts more attention than the others: number 138 on block 4 of this modernista necropolis is full of candles, flowers and all kinds of offerings: photographs, handwritten notes, dummies, porcelain figures, and much more. There lies Francesc Canals i Ambrós, a young man who died on 27 July 1899 at the age of twenty-two, known widely as ‘El Santet del Poblenou’ (the Little Saint of Poblenou). This is a prime example of popular devotion that has continued beyond the boy’s death and has seen various peaks of activity.

Little is known about Canals’s life, distorted by a host of legends and myths. He was born in Barcelona’s Ciutat Vella and was the son of a blind rug salesman. At the age of fourteen, he started working as a cashier at the El Siglo department store on La Rambla. He gained a reputation for being a good person and was known for his charity work. It was also said that he could predict the future: he reportedly saw his own death coming, as well as the fire at the El Siglo department store, which occurred a few decades later, in 1932.

We don’t really know his cause of death either, though it may have been tuberculosis. But we do know how people started to worship at his grave just after his death. The tradition was started by his colleagues at the department store and the florists of La Rambla: after every wedding, they brought him the bride’s bouquet. This way, he became known for curing lovesickness and infertility. And, as legend states that once he died, his father could see again, many come to him for help with health issues.

Over the years, this popular devotion has grown and grown: in 1908, the grave got so busy that Barcelona City Council had to move it to a larger, more accessible area. A piece of glass was placed in front of the entrance to the niche, which is where worshippers still make their offerings to this day. And there’s proof that this tradition is still going strong: a couple of times a year, the Barcelona Cemetery Service has to remove the glass and take out the offerings left there, as hundreds of them accumulate. This custom has even inspired various pieces of literature: the Historical Archive of Poblenou has written about the cemetery’s famous residents, while the Gothic-inspired novels ‘Habitacions tancades’ by Care Santos and ‘Retrum’ by Francesc Miralles also mention El Santet.