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Bari’s Borrowed Wonder Worker

text and photographs by Michael J.L. La Civita

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Before the suppression of the church in Communist Russia, if a pious peasant was asked to identify the Holy Trinity, more often than not he would mutter the names of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and St. Nicholas the Wonder Worker. Icons of this trinity, enshrined in every Russian home, reinforced this understanding.

Devotion to the Wonder Worker has not been confined to Russia. England, Greece, Holland, Lorraine, Sicily and southern Italy all honor him as patron. And his influence has spread to the New World, where it has taken on new life, particularly among children during the Christmas season.

Nowhere is the universal nature of St. Nicholas’s popularity more apparent than in the southern Italian city of Bari. In early May I traveled to this bustling port, the capital of Puglia, an agricultural region hugging the Adriatic coast. While traveling through the region I observed bands of nomads, grasping decorated staffs and burdened with backpacks. When I mistook them for Albanian refugees, my traveling companion informed me that these travelers were making an annual pilgrimage to Bari. There, on 9 May, in an impressive medieval basilica that bears his name, the church celebrates the “translation” of the relics of St. Nicholas to Bari.

According to tradition, Nicholas was born in the mid-third century to a wealthy Christian couple in Patara, a town near the southern shores of Asia Minor (modern Turkey). After the premature death of his parents, Nicholas gave up his wealth and entered a monastery, later traveling to Egypt and the Holy Land. He returned to his monastery, hoping to live quietly as a hermit. However, against his will, he was elected as Bishop of Myra, a small town near Patara.

Although little else is known about Nicholas, his popularity rests on his compassion for the poor and his passion for the faith.

“The reason for this special veneration of this special bishop, who felt neither theological works nor other writings,” writes Leonid Ouspensky, a noted Russian theologian, “is evidently that the church sees in him a personification of a shepherd, of its defender and intercessor.”

One of the most powerful stories reveals Nicholas’s compassion for the poor. There were three young girls whose father had lost his fortune and, consequently, their dowries. Due to their poverty, the girls were ignored by all the eligible men. Moved by their plight, Nicholas, under the cover of darkness, went to the man’s home and dropped a bag of gold through an open window. Finding the gold the following morning, the man was overwhelmed and, thanking God, married off his eldest girl.

Several nights later, Nicholas secretly deposited a second bag of gold. Dumbfounded, the man used it for his second daughter’s dowry.

The man, however, was determined to identify his benefactor and waited for the unknown person’s appearance. Again, under the cover of darkness, Nicholas left yet another sum of gold. Hearing a thump, the man rose to his feet and caught up with his mysterious benefactor, whom he recognized immediately. Nicholas demanded silence, binding the man to an oath never to reveal his identity.

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Tags: Russia Pilgrimage/pilgrims Italy