Here, writing for HistoryExtra, Wells explores the lives of seven controversial saints in history – from Thomas Becket to St Angela of Foligno…
St Augustine, or Augustine of Hippo as he is better known, is perhaps the most famous saint with a sinful past, which is rather surprising since his own mother (St Monica) was a devout Christian. He is remembered for stating: “God, grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.”
Born at Tagaste, North Africa in AD 354, Augustine was perhaps the greatest Christian ancient philosopher. Raised a devout Christian, he rejected his upbringing to live a life of hedonism, entertainment, and worldly ambition. The playboy had not one, but two mistresses, and an illegitimate son whom he abandoned at the prospect of marrying an heiress. He ran around for decades before having a change of heart, ditching his mistresses and spending the rest of his life celibate as a priest who related his story in a volume titled Confessions, while teaching and spreading the Christian message.
Augustine’s theology would become one of the main pillars on which the Church of the next 1,000 years was founded.
St Angela of Foligno
St Angela of Foligno was recently declared a saint through the procedure of equivocal canonisation by Pope Francis in 2013, but while some saints show signs of holiness from an early age, Angela was somewhat different.
Born in around 1248 to a leading Italian family, she became immersed in the quest for wealth and social position, even though she was a wife of high social standing and mother to several children. More interested in this life of distraction than caring for her family, around aged 40 she experienced a conversion and realised the apparent emptiness of her existence. In 1285 she called upon St Francis, who appeared to her in a vision, and asked his advice on making a competent general Confession (a confessing of all sins of one’s past life, or of an extended period, instead of just those sins committed since a previous confession).
Seeking God’s help in the sacrament of penance, her Franciscan confessor helped Angela to seek His pardon for her previous actions and suggested dedicating herself to prayer and the works of charity. Sadly, just three years later, her mother, husband and children all perished in quick succession (some suggest this was at Angela’s cruel hand – so that she would be free of homemaking to follow God’s path). She therefore sold all her worldly possessions and, in 1291, enrolled in the Third Order of St Francis, a secular Franciscan order, and founded a women’s religious group to serve the poor.
Most Christians know St Dismas by a rather telling name: “The Good Thief”– he was allegedly one of the two thieves who ended up flanking Christ’s side at His crucifixion. It is said that Dismas actually had a run-in with the Holy Family [Jesus, Mary and Joseph] when Jesus was only an infant. Together with an accomplice, heheld up Mary and Joseph as they were fleeing to Egypt to escape Herod’s soldiers. Apparently Dismas is said to have been moved to compassion by the Holy Family and bribed his companion with 40 drachmas to let them pass safely without harm.
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The Infant Jesus predicted that the thieves would be crucified with him in Jerusalem and that Dismas would then accompany him to Paradise. When crucified with Jesus, he asked Christ: “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” (Luke 23:42) Therefore, when Dismas acknowledged his sinfulness, Jesus forgave him and promised that he would be in paradise that very day.
Of course, this story cannot be substantiated and is often considered myth.
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Perhaps the most controversial historical saint, few among his contemporaries could have predicted that this Archbishop of Canterbury and adviser to King Henry II was destined for sainthood.
The son of a prosperous London merchant, Becket’s talents were noticed by Henry II, who made him his chancellor and the two became close friends. When the current archbishop, Theobald, died in 1161, Henry appointed Becket to the post (just over a year later), assuming his friend would be easily manipulated. He wasn’t – and the pair’s friendship soon fractured when it became clear that Becket was on the side of the church in disagreements with the crown.
In 1164, after realising the extent of Henry’s displeasure, Becket fled into exile in France and remained there until 1170. Upon his return, he excommunicated bishops who had diplomatically supported Henry in his pursuit to dislodge clerical privilege. This infuriated the king, leading to the disaster that ensued on 29 December 1170.
Four knights, believing Henry wanted Becket eliminated, murdered the archbishop, splattering his blood and brains across the northwest transept floor of Canterbury Cathedral and making him an instant martyr. From England and France, people flocked to his shrine, while a cult, associated with the curative power of Becket’s blood, began at Canterbury.
The first recorded miraculous cure occurred in January 1171, with a proliferation recorded thereafter. Canterbury became one of the most popular pilgrimage destinations in Europe, and his murder one of the most infamous events of the Middle Ages. Becket was canonised not even three years after his death, by Pope Alexander III on Ash Wednesday (21 February) 1173 at Segni, Italy.
Junípero Serra – a Spanish colonist who built a network of Catholic missions in modern-day California (formerly a province of New Spain), thereby bringing Catholicism in the 18th century – was canonised a saint by Pope Francis in 2015. Serra founded the first nine Catholic settlements from San Diego to San Francisco in the 1770s and 1780s, with the hope of herding native people onto farms and baptising them.
While Pope Francis described him as a priest who protected “the dignity of native communities” from abusers as he developed Catholicism in the New World, others suggest his baptised community were forced to remain in the settlements under terrible conditions such as overcrowding and the rapid spread of disease. The natives were also coerced into working on the settlements, and those who tried to escape were subjected to beatings. Serra, writing in 1780, even admitted supporting corporal punishment because other saints had endorsed it. His holy appointment therefore sparked great outrage, largely because many believed Serra unworthy as he was connected to a system that decimated the population of Native Americans in the colonial era.
Few facts are known about St Colmcille, one of Ireland’s three patron saints. Colmcille – meaning “dove of the Church” in Gaelic; Columb (in Irish) or Columba (in Latin) – was born at Gartan in what is now County Donegal in c521 AD. At the age of 30 he entered the priesthood at Clonard Abbey, in modern Co. Meath. When his prince cousin, Fiachra mac Ciaráin, offered him land at Derry, he set about founding his own monastery, which allowed him to travel throughout Northern Ireland teaching about Christianity, and establishing a further 30 monasteries in a decade.
Nevertheless, Colmcille was no angel – and his zealous character and preaching rankled many people. In AD 563 he was even accused of starting a war between two Irish tribes, while a number of clerics threatened to excommunicate him. Instead, Colmcille was sentenced never to see Ireland again. Exiled to Scotland with 12 companions, in AD 563 Colmcille left Ireland and settled with the Gaels of Dál Riata [a Gaelic kingdom comprising parts of Western Scotland], where he was granted the tiny west coast island of Iona to found his monastery and spend most of his remaining years.
Iona grew into one of the most influential centres of religious and cultural life in the Western world. And we can’t forget that in AD 565, Colmcille is also said to have encountered the Loch Ness Monster – apparently the first ever reference to the mythical beast.
Mary of Egypt
Mary of Egypt, or Maria Aegyptiaca, was born in the northeast African country in AD 344. At the age of 12 she left home, settling in Alexandria. She was said to be adept at using her body to gain what she wanted – some claim she was a harlot or prostitute, though others say she never accepted money for her “services” – but either way, her life represents dramatic sin followed by holy asceticism. One day, after observing a large group of pilgrims en route to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, she decided to join, with every intention of using her seduction skills to secure her way from Alexandria to Jerusalem by “corrupting” young men among the pilgrimage group.
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Soon after her arrival, however, Mary abandoned her life of sin and became a model of repentance. This followed a chance encounter with the Virgin Mary, whom she heard telling her: “Cross the Jordan and you will find rest.” Traversing the east bank of the River Jordan, Mary spent the remaining 47 years of her solitary life praying and fasting in the desert – surviving mostly off herbs, according to the 7th-century patriarch, Saint Sophronius – where she could be close to God.
She was found by a monk from a nearby monastery named Zosima, who prayed, listened, and gave her Holy Communion shortly before her death. Zosima buried her, reportedly with the help of a lion that assisted in digging the grave with its paws.
Emma J Wells is an ecclesiastical and architectural historian specialising in the late medieval/early modern English parish church/cathedral and the cult of saints. She is also a broadcaster and the author of numerous books including Pilgrim Routes of the British Isles (Robert Hale, 2016)
This article was first published by HistoryExtra in October 2019