The Catholic Church has a lot of saints. A lot. There are so many saints that even the Church, which has a written record of its doctrines and personnel decisions going back to the Roman Empire, doesn’t know for sure what the correct number is. It’s at least 10,000, if that helps, though that estimate is decades old and recent popes have gotten into the habit of confirming hundreds of saints apiece. It doesn’t help that, for the first thousand-odd years, the Church had no formal process for deciding who was and who wasn’t a saint, and candidates for sainthood were just proclaimed by people.
Bear in mind that the crushing majority of the people doing the proclaiming were illiterate peasants who believed in sorcery. Between that, the lack of formal procedure, and the way fables have of getting exaggerated with every retelling, and you have the perfect cauldron for brewing up some insane stories about people (and at least one dog) who may or may not have existed. The Church, to its credit, has traditionally tried to keep this sort of grassroots enthusiasm for, basically, magic under control, but that hasn’t stopped people from erecting shrines and celebrating feast days for some of the nuttiest saints imaginable.
1. Saint Guinefort Was Such a Good Dog He’s In Heaven Now
Saint Guinefort was a good dog. He was a very goooooood doggie. Who was a good dog? Saint Guinefort was, that’s who. He may have had a garbage master, but Saint Guinefort was the best dog ever.
Guinefort was the unlikely name of a large mixed-breed dog living in 13th-century France. His master was an undistinguished French knight who one day inexplicably left Guinefort to guard his infant son while he went hunting. History does not record whether this was a common occurrence at the time, but nobody seems to have been bothered by it. When the Knight returned home, he couldn’t find his son, but he did notice the fresh blood splashed around on the walls and all over his dog’s fur. Leaping to conclusions, the knight drew his sword and slew Guinefort, only to quickly find both his unharmed infant son and the dead viper whose blood Guinefort had painted the walls with. In remorse, the Knight established a shrine to his dog that was later associated with miraculous healings.
All dogs go to heaven, but some of them got such a raw deal that now they’re saints.
2. Saint Moses the Black Was Basically Sam Jackson
Everybody remembers Samuel Jackson’s iconic character from Pulp Fiction. Jules, the heartless outlaw, had a close encounter with death and decided he only survived by divine intervention. At the end of the movie, he uncharacteristically spares two armed robbers, whom he sees as a test of his newfound faith.
That character may as well have been based on the story of the 4th-century Saint Moses the Black. As a young man, Moses was the leader of an outlaw band in North Africa. After narrowly escaping a tight spot, he converted to Christianity and became a monk. In those days, as in our own time, North Africa was not a right place for a pacifist; soon after Moses’ conversion a band of robbers – possibly his old mates – came to sack his monastery. Being a Bad Mother Fucker, Moses singlehandedly subdued them all and considered beating them all to death. As a freshly minted Christian, however, he thought better of it and instead dragged the robbers by their necks to the chapel, where the other monks were praying. He asked the brothers for help not killing the intruders, and together they preached until the brigands accepted baptism.
3. Saint Columba Pwned the Loch Ness Monster
As any network executive could tell you, crossovers make great stories. Combining two franchises brings together two fandoms and encourages each to discover the other. When Steve Urkel came to visit the Tanners in San Francisco, for example, it was a fantastic opportunity for both Family Matters and Full House fans to come together and heal America’s deep cultural divisions.
A similar crossover is to be found in the story of Saint Columba, who was one of the original missionaries who (for some reason) converted Scotland to Christianity. One day, when she freshly arrived in the country, Columba went for a walk near Loch Ness. There, she found a party burying a man who had allegedly been crushed by a lake monster. When the beast suddenly put in an appearance and surged toward another man, who was inexplicably swimming in the water he knew a monster lived in, Columba knew just what to do. Quickly making the sign of the cross, Columba called to Nessie: “Halt! Thou shalt go no farther!” After that, the somewhat abashed Loch Ness Monster sank back into the water and stopped troubling the lakeside residents.
4. Saint-Denis Used His Head
Second-century Paris was a rough town, especially for a Christian preacher. Bishop Denis had the bad luck to live in a time and place where religious minorities like his – just his – were being actively persecuted by the superpower empire they lived in. At that time, bishops were anointed, not as faceless bureaucrats with a generous stipend, but as missionaries. Denis’ unenviable job was to convert the heathen French and to lead all of northern Gaul into the fold.
Nobody knows precisely what Saint-Denis said to the pagan crowds, but it doesn’t seem to have been popular. Before he could finish his sermon, Denis was seized by the authorities and dragged away to be summarily beheaded. Never one to be interrupted, Denis stood up after his beheading, picked up his own head, and then walked out of town preaching the Gospel. According to legend, he got about six miles out before he finished his remarks, having been followed by a curious crowd the whole way, and then laid down and died. A sanctuary was later built in that spot when Paris became a firmly Christian city.
5. Saint Fillan – Problem Solver
Some of the best saints’ stories involve God interceding to solve some relatively mundane problem in the least reasonable way imaginable. Saint Christopher, for example, was so handsome that the young women of his congregation continually afflicted him with their affections. God’s solution, in that case, was to replace Christopher’s beautiful face with what was literally the head of a dog, which seems to have put a stop to the issue of come-ons from young beauties.
In a similar vein, the Irish Saint Fillan of Munster seems to have been a creative problem solver himself. When a wolf killed an ox that was being used to plow a field, for instance, Fillan put the ox’s yoke on the wolf and made it drag the sled across the furrows instead. Likewise, when the saint had difficulty reading the Scriptures at night, God fixed his problem by causing his left forearm to glow in the dark as a nightlight. Incidentally, the alleged forearm of Saint Fillan was one of the relics carried by Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn, which would have caused problems for the cinematographer if the glowing arm bone had been included in Braveheart.
6. Saint Theresa of Avila Was Canonized for a Wet Dream
We’ve all been there as teenagers, and sometimes as adults. Long periods of – ahem – loneliness can do strange things to us, and sometimes our subconscious just sort of takes over while we sleep. As your 10th-grade Health teacher/Driver’s Ed instructor/Gym coach was careful to tell you, nocturnal emissions happen to almost everybody sooner or later, and it’s nothing to get worked up about.
As your celibate nuns were just as quick to point out, on the other hand, this sort of dream has something to do with sin, and you’re a terrible person for letting it happen while you’re asleep. As a 16th-century Italian nun, Saint Theresa of Avila was very much in the latter camp, and so her dreams – it seemed to her – were best interpreted as divine visions. By her own account:
“I saw an angel close by me… He was not large, but small of stature, and most beautiful… I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great that it made me moan, and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain that I could not wish to be rid of it… It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of His goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying.”
7. That Time Santa Claus Smacked a Bitch
The historical Santa Claus was an early Father of the Church named Nicholas; hence, “Saint Nick.” His big job for the Church was to help shape its doctrine at the Council of Nicea, where Emperor Constantine had called together all of the bishops to formalize the new state religion of Rome. Many of the men at this council, which ultimately produced the Nicene Creed, had been victims of persecution for their beliefs, and passions ran high during the doctrinal horse trading that ensued.
One belief that was up for debate was whether or not Jesus was equal to, inferior to, or the same as God the Father. To spare you thousands of words of apologetics, it’s enough to know that Nicholas liked the Trinity. Maybe that’s why, when Arius had the sheer gall to suggest that Jesus was just Some Guy, Nicholas walked right across the council chamber and clocked him in the face. According to legend, Nicholas was locked in the dungeon for this, pending a Church trial. While there, he was visited by Jesus and the Virgin Mary, who asked him why he did it. When he exclaimed that it was for love of them, they miraculously dressed him in his own bishop’s robes and gave him back his wand. That’s how he was covered the next day when his jailers found him. It was taken as an authentic miracle and a sign from the Lord, which is why Catholics today, almost 1,800 years later, officially believe in the Trinity.
8. Saint Dymphna’s Story Is Depressing
For almost 2,000 years, the stories of the saints have done more than shore up the Church’s authority; they have brought real comfort to poor people who have virtually no way out of their terrible lives. The unbearably depressing story of Saint Dymphna seems to be of that caliber, and it’s made all the worse by the likelihood that it, or something like it, not only happened, but that it’s probably happening right now in your city.
Dymphna was born the daughter of a pagan Russian prince. She secretly converted to Christianity a girl and hid her beliefs from her violent father. When Dymphna’s beautiful mother died, her father eventually settled on her as a suitable replacement. Having sworn her virginity to God, Dymphna resisted her father’s advances and finally ran away. When her father’s men caught up with her, she was executed for disobedience and various religious crimes. Today, she is the patron saint of incest victims, in case you needed that information for some reason.
9. Saint Joseph of Cupertino Was a Hard Man to Keep Down
In the 17th century, the entry barriers for monks were not unusually high. Unlike the priestly societies, such as the Jesuits, most monastic communities only really asked that you be serious about God and not embarrass the Church too much. Saint Joseph of Cupertino had Item 1 on that list checked off; he seems to have been a bit slow, and most of what he could talk about was his love of the Lord.
Joseph had a hard time hearing the Gospel without physically lifting out of his seat and levitating around the chapel. Every time he celebrated Mass, according to the many eyewitnesses, he would just start floating around and had to be pulled down by the ankle. His superiors tried to stop a personality cult from forming around Joseph by moving him from place to place, but the crowds always found him. After death, his relics have been associated with various miracles, and he is now the patron saint of, wait for it… air travelers, astronauts, and the mentally disabled.
10. Saint Benedict Was Medieval Yoda
During the Middle Ages, monastic communities were a mixed bag. Some of them were rich and very worldly, while others were of the hermit-in-a-cave persuasion. Ironically, the more deprived and ascetic a community of monks was, the more power their prayers were believed to carry, which drew crowds of desperate pilgrims, who gave donations, which made the poorest monasteries rich, which allegedly weakened their prayers. It was a vicious cycle, and only a masterful hermit could break the cycle. Enter Saint Benedict.
Saint Benedict left his worldly monastery because of its sinful habit of eating meat and set up shop as a hermit in the wilderness. There, he developed the power to read minds and raise the dead. He could allegedly lift and hurl impossibly heavy stones without touching them. When a nearby abbot died, the legendary Benedict was invited to take over and impose his strict rule on the monastery. This didn’t sit well with some of the brothers, who allegedly poisoned his drink. God tipped him off, however, and when Benedict made the sign of the cross over the goblet, it shattered.