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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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6 East Coast Castles to Visit for a Fairy Tale Road Trip
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Once the stuff of fairy tales and legends, a variety of former castles have been repurposed today as museums and event spaces. Enough of them dot the East Coast that you can plan a summer road trip to visit half a dozen in a week or two, starting in or near New York City. See our turrent-rich itinerary below.

STOP 1: BANNERMAN CASTLE // BEACON, NEW YORK

59 miles from New York City

The crumbling exterior of Bannerman Castle
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Bannerman Castle can be found on its very own island in the Hudson River. Although the castle has fallen into ruins, the crumbling shell adds visual interest to the stunning Hudson Highlands views, and can be visited via walking or boat tours from May to October. The man who built the castle, Scottish immigrant Frank Bannerman, accumulated a fortune shortly after the Civil War in his Brooklyn store known as Bannerman’s. He eventually built the Scottish-style castle as both a residence and a military weapons storehouse starting in 1901. The island remained in his family until 1967, when it was given to the Taconic Park Commission; two years later it was partially destroyed by a mysterious fire, which led to its ruined appearance.

STOP 2. GILLETTE CASTLE STATE PARK // EAST HADDAM, CONNECTICUT

116 miles from Beacon, New York

William Gillette was an actor best known for playing Sherlock Holmes, which may have something to do with where he got the idea to install a series of hidden mirrors in his castle, using them to watch guests coming and going. The unusual-looking stone structure was built starting in 1914 on a chain of hills known as the Seven Sisters. Gillette designed many of the castle’s interior features (which feature a secret room), and also installed a railroad on the property so he could take his guests for rides. When he died in 1937 without designating any heirs, his will forbade the possession of his home by any "blithering sap-head who has no conception of where he is or with what surrounded.” The castle is now managed by the State of Connecticut as Gillette Castle State Park.

STOP 3. BELCOURT CASTLE // NEWPORT, RHODE ISLAND

74 miles from East Haddam, Connecticut

The exterior of Belcourt castle
Jenna Rose Robbins, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Prominent architect Richard Morris Hunt designed Belcourt Castle for congressman and socialite Oliver Belmont in 1891. Hunt was known for his ornate style, having designed the facade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Breakers in Newport, Rhode Island, but Belmont had some unusual requests. He was less interested in a building that would entertain people and more in one that would allow him to spend time with his horses—the entire first floor was designed around a carriage room and stables. Despite its grand scale, there was only one bedroom. Construction cost $3.2 million in 1894, a figure of approximately $80 million today. But around the time it was finished, Belmont was hospitalized following a mugging. It took an entire year before he saw his completed mansion.

STOP 4. HAMMOND CASTLE MUSEUM // GLOUCESTER, MASSACHUSETTS

111 miles from Newport, Rhode Island

Part of the exterior of Hammond castle
Robert Linsdell, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

Inventor John Hays Hammond Jr. built his medieval-style castle between 1926 and 1929 as both his home and a showcase for his historical artifacts. But Hammond was not only interested in recreating visions of the past; he also helped shape the future. The castle was home to the Hammond Research Corporation, from which Hammond produced over 400 patents and came up with the ideas for over 800 inventions, including remote control via radio waves—which earned him the title "the Father of Remote Control." Visitors can take a self-guided tour of many of the castle’s rooms, including the great hall, indoor courtyard, Renaissance dining room, guest bedrooms, inventions exhibit room, library, and kitchens.

STOP 5. BOLDT CASTLE // ALEXANDRIA BAY, THOUSAND ISLANDS, NEW YORK

430 miles from Gloucester, Massachusetts

It's a long drive from Gloucester and only accessible by water, but it's worth it. The German-style castle on Heart Island was built in 1900 by millionaire hotel magnate George C. Boldt, who created the extravagant structure as a summer dream home for his wife Louise. Sadly, she passed away just months before the place was completed. The heartbroken Boldt stopped construction, leaving the property empty for over 70 years. It's now in the midst of an extensive renovation, but the ballroom, library, and several bedrooms have been recreated, and the gardens feature thousands of plants.

STOP 6. FONTHILL CASTLE // DOYLESTOWN, PENNSYLVANIA

327 miles from Alexandria Bay, New York

Part of the exterior of Fonthill castle

In the mood for more castles? Head south to Doylestown, Pennsylvania, where Fonthill Castle was the home of the early 20th century American archeologist, anthropologist, and antiquarian Henry Chapman Mercer. Mercer was a man of many interests, including paleontology, tile-making, and architecture, and his interest in the latter led him to design Fonthill Castle as a place to display his colorful tile and print collection. The inspired home is notable for its Medieval, Gothic, and Byzantine architectural styles, and with 44 rooms, there's plenty of well-decorated nooks and crannies to explore.

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7 Famous People Researchers Want to Exhume
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This week, the surrealist painter Salvador Dali is being exhumed from his grave in Figueres, northeastern Spain, where he has lain beneath the stage of a museum since his death in 1989. Researchers hope to collect DNA from his skeleton in order to settle a paternity suit brought by a tarot card reader named Pilar Abel, who claims that her mother had an affair with the artist while working as a maid in the seaside town where the Dalis vacationed. If the claim is substantiated, Abel may inherit a portion of the $325 million estate that Dali, who was thought to be childless, bequeathed to the Spanish state upon his death.

The grave opening may seem like a fittingly surreal turn of events, but advances in DNA research and other scientific techniques have recently led to a rise in exhumations. In the past few years (not to mention months), serial killer H. H. Holmes, poet Pablo Neruda, astronomer Tycho Brahe, and Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, among many others, have all been dug up either to prove that the right man went to his grave—or to verify how he got there. Still, there are a number of other bodies that scientists, historians, and other types of researchers want to exhume to answer questions about their lives and deaths. Read on for a sampling of such cases.

1. LEONARDO DA VINCI

An international team of art historians and scientists is interested in exhuming Leonardo da Vinci's body to perform a facial reconstruction on his skull, learn about his diet, and search for clues to his cause of death, which has never been conclusively established. They face several obstacles, however—not the least of which is that da Vinci's grave in France's Loire Valley is only his presumed resting place. The real deal was destroyed during the French Revolution, although a team of 19th century amateur archaeologists claimed to have recovered the famed polymath's remains and reinterred them in a nearby chapel. For now, experts at the J. Craig Venter Institute in California are working on a technique to extract DNA from some of da Vinci's paintings (he was known to smear pigment with his fingers as well as brushes), which they hope to compare with living relatives and the remains in the supposed grave.

2. MERIWETHER LEWIS

A portrait of Meriwether Lewis
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As one half of Lewis and Clark, Meriwether Lewis is one of America's most famous explorers, but his death belongs to a darker category—famous historical mysteries. Researchers aren't sure exactly what happened on the night of October 10, 1809, when Lewis stopped at a log cabin in Tennessee on his way to Washington, D.C. to settle some financial issues. By the next morning, Lewis was dead, a victim either of suicide (he was known to be suffering from depression, alcoholism, and possibly syphilis) or murder (the cabin was in an area rife with bandits; a corrupt army general may have been after his life). Beginning in the 1990s, descendants and scholars applied to the Department of the Interior for permission to exhume Lewis—his grave is located on National Park Service Land—but were eventually denied. Whatever secrets Lewis kept, he took them to his grave.

3. SHAKESPEARE

A black and white portrait of Shakespeare
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Shakespeare made his thoughts on exhumation very clear—he placed a curse on his tombstone that reads: "Good frend for Jesus sake forebeare/ To digg the dust encloased heare/ Bleste be the man that spares thes stones/ And curst be he that moves my bones." Of course, that hasn't stopped researchers wanting to try. After Richard III's exhumation, one South African academic called for a similar analysis on the Bard's bones, with hopes of finding new information on his diet, lifestyle, and alleged predilection for pot. And there may be another reason to open the grave: A 2016 study using ground-penetrating radar found that the skeleton inside appeared to be missing a skull.

4. JOHN WILKES BOOTH

A black and white photograph of John Wilkes Booth
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The events surrounding Abraham Lincoln's death in 1865 are some of the best-known in U.S. history, but the circumstances of his assassin's death are a little more murky. Though most historical accounts say that John Wilkes Booth was cornered and shot in a burning Virginia barn 12 days after Lincoln's murder, several researchers and some members of his family believe Booth lived out the rest of his life under an assumed name before dying in Oklahoma in 1903. (The corpse of the man who died in 1903—thought by most people to be a generally unremarkable drifter named David E. George—was then embalmed and displayed at fairgrounds.) Booth's corpse has already been exhumed from its grave at Baltimore's Greenmount Cemetery and verified twice, but some would like another try. In 1994, two researchers and 22 members of Booth's family filed a petition to exhume the body once again, but a judge denied the request, finding little compelling evidence for the David E. George theory. Another plan, to compare DNA from Edwin Booth to samples of John Wilkes Booth's vertebrae held at the National Museum of Health and Medicine, has also come to naught.

5. NAPOLEON

A portrait of Napoleon
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Napoleon has already been exhumed once: in 1840, when his body was moved from his burial-in-exile on St. Helena to his resting place in Paris's Les Invalides. But some researchers allege that that tomb in Paris is a sham—it's not home to the former emperor, but to his butler. The thinking goes that the British hid the real Napoleon's body in Westminster Abbey to cover up neglect or poisoning, offering a servant's corpse for internment at Les Invalides. France's Ministry of Defense was not amused by the theory, however, and rejected a 2002 application to exhume the body for testing.

6. HENRY VIII

A portrait of Henry VIII
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In his younger years, the Tudor monarch Henry VIII was known to be an attractive, accomplished king, but around age 40 he began to spiral into a midlife decline. Research by an American bioarchaeologist and anthropologist pair in 2010 suggested that the king's difficulties—including his wives' many miscarriages—may have been caused by an antigen in his blood as well as a related genetic disorder called McLeod syndrome, which is known to rear its head around age 40. Reports in the British press claimed the researchers wanted to exhume the king's remains for testing, although his burial at George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle means they will need to get the Queen’s permission for any excavation. For now, it's just a theory.

7. GALILEO

A portrait of Galileo
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The famed astronomer has had an uneasy afterlife. Although supporters hoped to give him an elaborate burial at the Basilica of Santa Croce, he spent about 100 years in a closet-sized room there beneath the bell tower. (He was moved to a more elaborate tomb in the basilica once the memory of his heresy conviction had faded.) More recently, British and Italian scientists have said they want to exhume his body for DNA tests that could contribute to an understanding of the problems he suffered with his eyesight—problems that may have led him to make some famous errors, like saying Saturn wasn't round. The Vatican will have to sign off on any exhumation, however, so it may be a while.

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