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8 Lesser-Known Miracles of Christian Saints

Whether or not you attended Sunday school, keeping track of all the Christian saints is an almost superhuman undertaking: Religion and culture writer Peter Stanford estimates that there are 10,000 recognized in Catholicism alone. And while stories about the deeds of some holy healers and leaders remain popular decades or centuries after they were first told, many of the most surprising miracles have been forgotten. Here are just eight you might not know about.

1. ST. DENIS CARRIES HIS OWN HEAD THROUGH THE STREETS OF PARIS.

St. Denis, first bishop of Paris, was reportedly martyred along with his companions St. Eleutherius and St. Rusticus by the local governor Sissinius (probably during Emperor Decius’s persecution of Christians in the 3rd century) after they converted a number of pagans to the Christian faith. Little is known about the details of the martyrdom other than that the three men were reportedly tortured and decapitated near Paris; their followers recovered the bodies, which were laid to rest where the Abbey of St. Denis was built centuries later.

As Phyllis G. Jestice, scholar and author of Holy People of the World: A Cross-cultural Encyclopedia, Volume 1, points out, however, the legend of St. Denis's most famous miracle describes his journey to his final resting place as happening rather differently. A late 5th-century text established the still-popular tale of St. Denis carrying his own decapitated head post-execution several miles from what's currently Montmartre to where the Benedictine abbey at Saint Denis currently stands.

2. ST. BLAAN CREATES FIRE WITH HIS FINGERTIPS.

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Believed to have been active in the 6th century, the Scottish bishop St. Blaan is credited with several miracles, including lighting fires on at least one occasion using only his hands. James King Hewison’s 1893 text describes the initial legendary incident:

One day while [worshippers] were busy psalm-singing, the fires, which were left in charge of Blaan, all went out. He, wishing no one to incur the blame of the saint, offered up prayer, whereupon fire sparkled from his finger-tips like flashes from a flint when it is struck.

While producing fire from one’s fingertips is an amazing act in any era, for monks from the Middle Ages—who were tasked with the long process of making a fire—the term miraculous was apt. As Paul Burns' revised edition of Alban Butler's Lives of the Saints observes, "This and other curious miracles ascribed to Blaan testify to the harsh conditions of the age and place, and to what, under them, was an appropriately exceptional achievement."

3. ST. BRIGIT ENDOWS WATER WITH THE POWER OF LOVE …

Brigit (or Brigid) of Kildare has been a venerated Catholic figure since not long after her death circa 525 CE, according to Jestice, and is one of Ireland's three patron saints. During her life of chastity and Christian service, she reportedly performed or received many miracles—ranging from the healing of ailing beggars to hanging her cold, wet clothes on a sunbeam—and once assisted a man whose wife had lost her spark for the marriage, according to Lady Gregory Augusta's 1908 collection of folk knowledge and lore regarding saints:

There came to her one time a man making his complaint that his wife would not sleep with him but was leaving him, and he came asking a spell from Brigit that would bring back her love. And Brigit blessed water for him, and it is what she said: "Bring that water into your house, and put it in the food and in the drink and on the bed." And after he had done that, his wife gave him great love, so that she could not be as far on the other side of the house from him, but was always at his hand.

According to the legend, though, this miraculous change may have come with a price: Later on, when the man had just embarked upon a journey at sea, he saw that his wife had followed him to the shore and, unable to cross the patch of water now separating them, said "that if he would not come back to her, she would go into the sea that was between them."

4. ... AND TURNS HER BATHWATER INTO BEER.

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Today, St. Brigit is still well known for her legendary appreciation of beer, which pops up throughout accounts of her life and work (miraculous and otherwise). Lady Gregory, for example, includes the following in her list of “Things Brigit Wished For” as the saint’s very first desire: "I would wish a great lake of ale for the King of Kings; I would wish the family of Heaven to be drinking it through life and time."

According to legend, though, she didn’t just wish for beer; she also produced it by miraculous means. Max Nelson’s The Barbarian's Beverage: A History of Beer in Ancient Europe notes that various texts refer to the miracle of St. Brigid turning her bathwater into beer so that she may better host some last-minute visiting clerics, and even a hymnal reference in which she “seems to turn water into mead.”

5. DON BOSCO GETS HELP FROM IL GRIGIO, HIS GUARDIAN DOG.

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According to Dr. Charles d’Espiney’s 1884 account of the life and works of Don Bosco, a.k.a. St. John Bosco, the 19th-century Italian priest was at times accompanied by a large dog that would mostly appear in times of need, and whose dark gray coat earned him the nickname Il Grigio. In her 1885 re-telling of d’Espiney’s narrative of the saint, Elizabeth Raymond-Barker explains that the huge dog’s initial appearance one dark night was as sudden and mysterious as many of its subsequent ones, but that it quickly became the priest’s trusted companion:

[Don Bosco] had begun to cross [a] lonesome tract, [when] he suddenly saw by his side an enormous grey dog. A first feeling of alarm was removed by the gentleness of the splendid creature, which, after gambolling round him, walked quietly by his side until it saw him safely indoors. From this time, when Don Bosco had been detained in Turin until after dusk, he was joined almost invariably, as soon as he had left the town, by his foot-footed friend.

Il Grigio appeared sporadically throughout Don Bosco’s later life, repeatedly keeping him safe on lonely walks home and once helping the saint find his way when lost on a late-night journey. The pup reportedly saved the saint's life from would-be assassins in an escalating series of attacks, too, but Don Bosco's ability to communicate with and call off Il Grigio ensured that his attackers never ended up as mincemeat themselves. 

The dog wasn’t all business, either, and—while he reportedly never took food or drink from the priest’s grateful followers—he welcomed affection from Don Bosco and from the children of the church’s playground, too; according to Barker, "At first inclined to be shy of this new acquaintance, [they quickly] hailed him as a playfellow: some mounted his back, some stroked his silken ears, and they took him thus to the refectory."

6. ST. MARTIN DE PORRES BROKERS PEACE WITH THE RAT POPULATION.

Born in 1579, St. Martin de Porres, who the African American Registry calls “the first black saint in the Americas,” led a very busy, abstinent, and accomplished life in Lima, Peru. His very hard work as a servant—the only job he was permitted to take at the Dominicans of Holy Rosary Priory—inspired the order to rethink its ethnic barriers and even promote him to the un-ordained position of lay brother, while his exceptional abilities as a surgeon and healer caused a steady stream of patients near and far to seek his help throughout his life.

His reverence for life didn’t end with human beings, though; popular legend has it that, when he was asked to set out poison for a population of rats that was irksome to the resident prior, the vegetarian and future saint did as he was asked but then called out for them in the convent’s garden, told them about the poison, and got them to agree not to bother the prior anymore.

7. ST. GUTHLAC EXORCISES A DEMON WITH HIS BELT.

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The medieval monk fought evil in various forms throughout his life in the 7th and early 8th centuries, and was legendarily given a protective whip or scourge by St. Bartholomew for use on demons. However, he also made use of his own belt (or “girdle”) when necessary; the item was “good against headache,” William George Black points out, and even allowed St. Guthlac to free a man from demonic clutches, according to The Anglo-Saxon Version of the Life of St. Guthlac, Hermit of Crowland

[A] follower of the aforesaid exile Athelbald, whose name was Eega, was disquieted by the accursed spirit. And he plagued himself so severely that he had no recollection of himself. Then his relations brought him to the man of God. As soon as he came to him he girded him with his girdle. No sooner was he girded with the girdle than all the uncleanness departed from him, and the illness never after ailed him.

8. ST. NICHOLAS BEGINS FASTING ON HOLY DAYS AS A BABY.

The 4th-century saint and bishop Nicholas of Myra performed various miracles throughout his life, and is perhaps best known today in his jelly-bellied, white-haired version. However, he famously kicked off a lifetime (and then some) of miraculous behavior while he was still in the cradle. Author Giles Morgan notes that St. Nick “demonstrated an early interest in religion as a child [and] is sometimes shown [in religious art] as an infant refusing to drink milk from his mother's breasts on Wednesdays and Fridays as an act of fledgling piety because these were days of canonical fasting.”

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The Plucky Teenage Stowaway Aboard the First American Expedition to Antarctica
The Ohio State University Archives
The Ohio State University Archives

Documentary filmmaker and journalist Laurie Gwen Shapiro came across the name "William Gawronski" in 2013 while researching a story about Manhattan's St. Stanislaus, the oldest Polish Catholic church in the U.S. In 1930, more than 500 kids from the church had held a parade in honor of Billy Gawronski, who had just returned from two years aboard the first American expedition to Antarctica, helmed by naval officer Richard E. Byrd.

The teenager had joined the expedition in a most unusual way: by stowing aboard Byrd's ships the City of New York and the Eleanor Bolling not once, not twice, but four times total. He swam across the Hudson River to sneak onto the City of New York and hitchhiked all the way to Virginia to hide on the Eleanor Bolling.

"I thought, 'Wait, what?" Shapiro tells Mental Floss.

Intrigued by Billy's persistence and pluck, Shapiro dove into the public records and newspaper archives to learn more about him. She created an Excel spreadsheet of Gawronskis all along the East Coast and began cold-calling them.

"Imagine saying, 'Did you have an ancestor that jumped in the Hudson and stowed away to the Antarctic in 1928?'" Shapiro says. She got "a lot of hang-ups."

On the 19th call, to a Gawronski in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, an elderly woman with a Polish accent answered the phone. "That boy was my husband," Gizela Gawronski told her. Billy had died in 1981, leaving behind a treasure trove of mementos, including scrapbooks, notebooks, yearbooks, and hundreds of photos.

"I have everything," Gizela told Shapiro. "I was hoping someone would find me one day."

Three days later, Shapiro was in Maine poring over Billy's papers with Gizela, tears in her eyes.

These materials became the basis of Shapiro's new book The Stowaway: A Young Man's Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica. It's a rollicking good read full of fascinating history and bold characters that takes readers from New York to Tahiti, New Zealand to Antarctica, and back to New York again. It's brimming with the snappy energy and open-minded optimism of the Jazz Age.

Shapiro spent six weeks in Antarctica herself to get a feel for Billy's experiences. "I wanted to reach the Ross Ice barrier like Billy did," she says.

Read on for an excerpt from chapter four.

***

As night dropped on September 15, Billy jumped out of his second-floor window and onto the garden, a fall softened by potatoes and cabbage plants and proudly photographed sunflowers. You would think that the boy had learned from his previous stowaway attempt to bring more food or a change of dry clothes. Not the case.

An overnight subway crossing into Brooklyn took him to the Tebo Yacht Basin in Gowanus. He made for the location he'd written down in his notes: Third Avenue and Twenty-Third Street.

In 1928 William Todd's Tebo Yacht Basin was a resting spot— the spot—for the yachts of the Atlantic seaboard's most aristocratic and prosperous residents. The swanky yard berthed more than fifty staggering prizes of the filthy rich. Railroad executive Cornelius Vanderbilt kept his yacht O-We-Ra here; John Vanneck, his Amphitrite. Here was also where to find Warrior, the largest private yacht afloat, owned by the wealthiest man in America, public utilities baron Harrison Williams; yeast king (and former mayor of Cincinnati) Julian Fleischman's $625,000 twin-screw diesel yacht, the Carmago; General Motors president Alfred P. Sloan's Rene; shoe scion H. W. Hanan's Dauntless; and J. P. Morgan's Corsair III. The Tebo Yacht Basin's clubroom served fish chowder luncheons to millionaires in leather-backed mission chairs.

Todd, a great friend of Byrd's, lavished attention on his super-connected pal with more contacts than dollars. He had provided major funding for Byrd's 1926 flight over the North Pole, and helped the commander locate and refit two of the four Antarctic expedition ships for $285,900, done at cost. Todd loved puffy articles about him as much as the next man, and press would help extract cash from the millionaires he actively pursued as new clients; helping out a famous friend might prove cheaper than the advertisements he placed in upmarket magazines. Throughout that summer, Byrd mentioned Todd's generous support frequently.

Two weeks after the City of New York set sail, the Chelsea, the supply ship of the expedition, was still docked at the Tebo workyard and not scheduled to depart until the middle of September. Smith's Dock Company in England had built the refurbished 170-foot, 800-ton iron freighter for the British Royal Navy at the tail end of the Great War. First christened patrol gunboat HMS Kilmarnock, her name was changed to the Chelsea during her post–Royal Navy rumrunning days.

Not long before she was scheduled to depart, Byrd announced via a press release that he was renaming this auxiliary ship, too, after his mother, Eleanor Bolling. But the name painted on the transom was Eleanor Boling, with one l—the painter's mistake. As distressing as this was (the name was his mother's, after all), Byrd felt a redo would be too expensive and a silly use of precious funds. Reporters and PR staff were simply instructed to always spell the name with two ls.

As Billy eyed the ship in dock days after his humiliation on board the New York, he realized here was another way to get to Antarctica. The old, rusty-sided cargo ship would likely be less guarded than the flagship had been.

As September dragged on, Billy, back in Bayside, stiffened his resolve. No one would think he'd try again! On September 15, once more he swam out during the night to board a vessel bound for Antarctica.

Since his visit two weeks prior, Billy had studied his news clippings and knew that the Bolling was captained by thirty-six-year-old Gustav L. Brown, who'd been promoted weeks earlier from first mate of the New York when Byrd added the fourth ship to his fleet. Billy liked what he read. According to those who sailed under Brown's command, this tall and slender veteran of the Great War was above all genteel, and far less crotchety than the New York's Captain Melville. Captain Brown's education went only as far as high school, and while he wasn't against college, he admired honest, down-to-earth workers. Like his colleague Captain Melville, Brown had begun a seafaring life at fourteen. He seemed just the sort of man to take a liking to a teenage stowaway with big dreams.

Alas, the crew of the second ship headed to Antarctica now knew to look for stowaways. In a less dramatic repeat of what had happened in Hoboken, an Eleanor Bolling seaman ousted Billy in the earliest hours of the morning. The kid had (unimaginatively) hidden for a second time in a locker under the lower forecastle filled with mops and bolts and plumbing supplies. The sailor brought him to Captain Brown, who was well named, as he was a man with a mass of brown hair and warm brown eyes. The kind captain smiled at Billy and praised the cheeky boy's gumption—his Swedish accent still heavy even though he'd made Philadelphia his home since 1920—yet Billy was escorted off to the dock and told to scram.

A few hours later, still under the cover of night, Billy stole back on board and was routed out a third time, again from the “paint locker.”

A third time? The Bolling's third in command, Lieutenant Harry Adams, took notes on the gutsy kid who had to be good material for the lucrative book he secretly hoped to pen. Most of the major players would score book deals after the expedition; the public was eager for adventure, or at least so publishers thought. The catch was that any deal had to be approved by Byrd: to expose any discord was to risk powerful support. Adams's book, Beyond the Barrier with Byrd: An Authentic Story of the Byrd Antarctic Exploring Expedition, was among the best: more character study than thriller, his grand sense of humor evident in his selection of anecdotes that the others deemed too lightweight to include.

Billy was not the only stowaway that September day. Also aboard was a girl Adams called Sunshine, the "darling of the expedition," a flirt who offered to anyone who asked that she wanted to be the first lady in Antarctica. (In the restless era between world wars, when movies gave everyone big dreams, even girl stowaways were not uncommon.) Brown told a reporter that Sunshine had less noble aspirations, and soon she, too, was removed from the Bolling, but not before she gave each crew member a theatrical kiss.

As the early sun rose, Captain Brown called Billy over to him from the yacht yard's holding area where he had been asked to wait with the giggling Sunshine until his father arrived. The captain admired Billy's gumption, but it was time for the seventeen-year-old to go now and not waste any more of anyone's time.

As Lieutenant Adams recorded later, "Perhaps this matter of getting rid of Bill was entered up in the Eleanor Bolling log as the first scientific achievement of the Byrd Antarctic expedition."

*** 

From THE STOWAWAY: A Young Man's Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. Copyright © 2018 by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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Art
Art Lovers in England, Rejoice: France's Famous Bayeux Tapestry is Coming to the UK
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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One of France’s most prized national treasures, the Bayeux Tapestry, is officially heading to England for exhibition. The loan will mark the first time the fragile 11th century work has left France in nearly 1000 years, according to The Washington Post.

French president Emmanuel Macron announced news of the loan in mid-January, viewed by some as a gesture to smooth post-Brexit relations with Britain, ABC reports. The tapestry depicts the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, a historically important event replete with guts and glory.

Stretching for 210 feet, the Bayeux Tapestry’s nine embroidered panels tell the tale of Harold, Earl of Wessex, who swore an oath to support the right of William, Duke of Normandy, to the English throne once King Edward (a.k.a. Edward the Confessor) died without an heir. But after Edward's funeral at Westminster Abbey, Harold breaks his oath to William so he could be crowned king instead. Believing he was the rightful ruler, William—today remembered as William the Conqueror—decides to wage war and ultimately defeats Harold at the Battle of Hastings.

The historical narrative has endured for centuries, but the tapestry's provenance has been lost to time. Experts think that the artwork may have been created in England, shortly after the Battle of Hastings, although it’s unclear who designed and embroidered the scenes. Its original owner, Bishop Odo of Bayeux, the half-brother of William the Conqueror, may have commissioned the Bayeux Tapestry. He became Earl of Kent after the Battle of Hastings, and this new title would have afforded him access to skilled artisans, The Guardian explains.

The Bayeux Tapestry is currently on display in the town of Bayeux in Normandy. It likely won’t leave France until 2020, after conservators ensure that it’s safe to move the artwork. According to The Telegraph, the tapestry might be be displayed at the British Museum in 2022.

[h/t The Washington Post]

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