For over 2,000 years, Christian tradition has recognized the holiness of certain individuals by declaring them saints. While we may think of saints as pious people who spent their lives in quiet service to God, not all of those who have made it into the canon fit this stereotype. Indeed, from thieves and parent-slayers to lusty prostitutes and bearded ladies, the following hagiographies offer a surprisingly motley crew. Here, then, we present ten unusual men and women whose elevation to sainthood was most unlikely.
10. Saint Joseph of Cupertino
Born in Italy in 1603, Joseph’s early life was not filled with promise. Considered to be unintelligent, he was known as ‘the Gaper’ as he was prone to staring blankly into middle distance. At first, he was refused entry from religious orders due to his ignorance, but he later gained admittance to a Franciscan friary when he was in his twenties. Here his first duty was to care for the friary mule. In 1630, on St. Francis of Assisi’s feast day, Joseph miraculously flew into the sky and hovered over the procession. Profoundly embarrassed by his unintended lift-off, he decided to take refuge in his mother’s house. Nevertheless, his ecstatic flights continued, completely out of his control, and gained him much fame – including the nickname ‘The Flying Saint’. The Church tried to hide him and at the time of his death he was confined in a friary, under strict orders not to speak to any laypeople. He is now the patron saint of pilots and the mentally challenged, amongst other groups.
9. Saint Mary of Egypt
While Jesus’ forgiveness of prostitutes has been fodder for some of the most well-known biblical accounts, we still wonder what he would have made of St. Mary of Egypt. Born in 344 AD, she began prostituting herself at the age of 12. In many cases, she refused payment for her services due to her own enjoyment of the deeds. When she was 29, she journeyed to Jerusalem, not on a pilgrimage for repentance but in a bid to find more sexual partners. However, once in Jerusalem, she tried to enter a church but an invisible force stopped her in her tracks. Realizing that it was her sin that barred her, she prayed and vowed to avoid earthly pleasures in the future. She was then able to enter the church and spent the rest of her life living as a hermit in the desert. She is considered to be the patron saint of the penitent.
8. Saint Moses the Black
As a slave in Egypt in the 4th century, Moses the Black stole and was also suspected of committing murder. When dismissed for these crimes, he led a pack of bandits who terrorized the Nile Valley. When hiding from the authorities, he sought refuge with a group of monks. Inspired by their devotion to God, he became a Christian and joined their monastery. However, his old life was difficult to leave behind. At one point, he subdued a group of robbers and dragged them to chapel. In his old age, he was more pacifistic, convincing his brothers to retreat rather than fight back against an attack on their monastery. He and seven other monks greeted the attackers peacefully, and were killed. He is the patron saint of Africa.
7. Saint Julian the Hospitaller
St. Julian did not enjoy an auspicious start to life. On the day that he was born, his father saw witches cast a curse on the infant so that he would one day kill his parents. Once the young Julian found out about his fate, he swore he would never do so. To keep his parents safe, he left them and walked for 50 days until he reached Galicia, where he married and settled down. Twenty years later, his parents came looking for him and arrived at his house while he was out hunting. Julian’s wife welcomed them and had them rest from their journey in her bed. Sadly for them, ‘the enemy’ told Julian that his wife had a lover, and he returned home to find his bed occupied. He stabbed them both with his sword and left the room in grief to find his wife outside. As absolution, he and his wife used their wealth to build seven hospitals and minister to the poor. In his old age, he was visited by an angel, who granted him forgiveness from his sins.
6. Saint Margaret of Antioch
As the daughter of a pagan in the 3rd Century AD, and a pagan priest at that, Margaret’s Christianity was not well received. A powerful Roman sought to marry her, but required that she give up her faith in Christ. Margaret’s refusal led to her cruel torture but her holiness was proven by many miraculous events. She was swallowed by Satan, who had taken the form of a dragon, but Margaret had the last laugh, as her cross irritated the inside of its stomach and she escaped. Eventually she succumbed to the torture and was killed in 304 AD. Over 1,000 years later, she appeared and spoke to Joan of Arc during her battles against the English.
5. Saint Wilgefortis
An arranged and unwanted marriage was a common problem for young women in times past – as it still is in many cultures today. Seeking to avoid marriage to a pagan king, young Wilgefortis, whose name is thought to mean “holy face,” took a vow of virginity and prayed to God that she would become repugnant to her fiancee. God obliged by providing Wilgefortis with a luxurious beard. This disturbed her fiancee and he broke off the engagement, leaving her father so enraged that he crucified her. She is the patron saint of women who wish to be released from the clutches of abusive husbands.
4. Saint Vladimir the Great
As a prince of Kiev and the leader of a great Norse army in the 10th Century AD, Vladimir carried out many sinful and terrible acts. When refused an engagement to a princess, he simply attacked her city, killed her father and took her prisoner. Throughout his reign, he expanded his borders by war and battle. A committed pagan, he had many wives and 800 concubines. In 983, Vladimir wanted to make a human sacrifice to his pagan gods, but the Christian father of the man selected spoke out against pagan beliefs and tried to convert the crowd to Christianity. He was unsuccessful and both he and his son were killed by the mob. However, the incident stayed with Vladimir and he sent envoys to study the world’s religions, eventually converting to Christianity in 988.
3. Saint Longinus
Most of us would feel quite poorly disposed to somebody who stabbed us in the side, but Jesus’ forgiveness clearly knew no bounds. After stabbing Jesus with a lance while he was on the cross, this Roman centurion was struck by the holiness of Jesus, and proclaimed, “Truly this man was the son of God!” After the crucifixion, he became a Christian and converted many souls before being sentenced to death by beheading by Pontius Pilate, the same Roman Governor who ordered the crucifixion of Jesus.
2. Saint Denis
A Christian bishop in the 3rd century, St. Denis spent his time preaching the word of Christ and converting the Gauls to Christianity. Apparently, he was a little too successful, causing the pagan priests to cut off his head on a high hill. Unfortunately for them, this did not stop him from continuing to preach the Gospel. He is said to have picked up his head and walked for six miles, preaching about Christ as he ambled about. As bizarre as his tale seems, Saint Denis is in fact one of many cephalophores (or ‘head carriers’) to be found in the study of Christian saints.
1. Saint George
Born in the 3rd Century to a Christian family, St. George served as a Roman soldier. When the emperor ordered the arrest of all Christian soldiers, St. George denounced him, refusing many bribes that the monarch offered him if he would abandon his faith. His torture and death inspired many, including the empress, to convert to Christianity. These were not the only converts of St. George; at one point on his travels, legend has it that he killed a dragon that was terrorizing a city, using the sign of the cross to protect himself. His courage caused the city’s inhabitants to become Christian.