By: Daniella Palmiotto
The series that we are doing is focusing on titles of Mary and on saints who I encounter on my travels through Italy. This post is about St. Nicholas who we know today as Santa Claus. He was born in Patara in Asia Minor, what is now the southern coast of Turkey. His parents were wealthy and raised him a devout Christian. They died of an epidemic when he was a young boy and he took seriously the call of Jesus to sell all that he had and to give to the poor. He used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering. He dedicated his life to serving God and he was made the Bishop of Myra while a young man. He was known for his generosity to those in need, his love for children, and his concern for sailors and ships. He suffered for his faith under the Roman Emperor Diocletian and was exiled and imprisoned. In those days, there was so much persecution of the Church that the prisons were too full with priests and bishops that there was no room for criminals. After his release, St. Nicholas attended the Council of Nicaea in 325; the Council where the Nicene Creed was developed. He died on December 6, 343 in Myra and was buried in his Cathedral church.
They noticed that there was a liquid substance that formed in his tomb and called it manna. Myra became a very popular pilgrimage site. It was a seaport so sailors from different places would take some parts of the shrine and bring them back to their cities so pilgrims would visit their cities as well. At one point, Myra fell to the Seljuks, who were not Christian, so there was concern for whether pilgrims would be able to visit this site in the future and whether the shrine would be preserved. Some of the merchants and sailors from Venice and Bari wanted to bring the shrine to their cities. In 1087, three ships of sailors and merchants from Bari stopped in Mayra on their way home from Antioch. These sailors and merchants visited the tomb and asked the monks where the manna was extracted and where his body was located. The monks grew concerned and asked what they intended to do and stated that they would not allow them to take the body. The men from Bari broke open the tomb with an iron bar and carried away the bones to the ship as the townspeople ran after them in hot pursuit. They returned to Bari on May 9, 1087 and the townspeople welcomed them at the harbor. They promised to build a beautiful church to host the relics of St. Nicholas.
The crypt was completed two years later in October 1089 and Pope Urban II laid the relics beneath the crypt’s altar. This church in Bari became one of Medieval Europe’s great pilgrimage sites. The main church was completed in ten years and the Basilica was completed by the mid-12th century. It was built in the Romanesque style. The manna continues to be excreted each year. It is diluted and bottled. The locals here are very devoted to St. Nicholas.
Since 1951, this church has been home to Dominican friars. In 1966, an Orthodox chapel was built on the side to encourage ecumenism since St. Nicholas is everyone’s saint. In 2018, Pope Francis invited religious leaders from all over the Middle East to meet in Bari to pray for peace in the Middle East and an end to the conflict in Syria. Bari was chosen because it is considered the window into the East and is the home of St. Nicholas who is venerated by both Western and Eastern Christians.
There are a lot of stories about St. Nicholas’ generosity and concern for children. One of the stories is about a father with three daughters who did not have enough money for their dowries. They faced the possibility of becoming slaves since they it was unlikely that they would find a suitor without a dowry. The story has it that St. Nicholas threw in packets of gold in through the window for them to have a dowry. Another story about his generosity and concern for children is that the people of Myra were celebrating St. Nicolas the night before his feast day and pirates from Crete took a young boy from Myra to keep as a slave. This young boy served as the cupbearer for their leader. His parents were devastated and did not celebrate St. Nicholas’ feast day the following year. However, their son was miraculously whisked up and returned to his parents. This miraculous reunion was attributed to St. Nicholas.