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.
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.
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.
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.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
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.”