Born at — Sant’ Angelo, in Pontano, near Fermo, in the March of Ancona
His parents, said to have been called Compagnonus de Guarutti and Amata de Guidiani (these surnames may merely indicate their birth-places), were pious folk, perhaps gentle born, living content with a small substance. His mother was a model of holiness. They were childless until a pilgrimage to a shrine of the original Saint Nicholas at Bari, Italy where his mother asked for a son whom she promised to dedicate to God’s service. When her wish was granted, she named the boy Nicholas. He soon gave unusual signs of saintliness. Already at seven he would hide away in a nearby cave and pray there like the hermits whom he had observed in the mountains.
His religious formation was greatly influenced by the spirituality of the hermits of Brettino, one of the congregations which came to form part of the “Grand Union” of Augustinians in 1256, whose communities were located in the region of the March where Nicholas was born and raised. Characteristic of these early hermits of Brettino were a great emphasis on poverty, rigorous practices of fasting and abstinence, and long periods of the day devoted to communal and private prayer.
After hearing the inspired preaching by Reginaldo da Monterubbiano, Prior (local superior) of the Augustinian monastery in Sant’Angelo, he felt a call to embrace the religious life. His parents gave a joyful consent. His piousness so impressed the Bishop of Fermo that he permitted Nicholas to join the minor orders as young boy. As soon as he was old enough he was received into the Order of Augustinian friars and made his novitiate in 1261. At age eighteen he made his profession and entered the monastery at Tolentino where he was very active in administering the sacraments to the local community. He quickly won over the trust and love of the locals; he was often called upon to pray for the deceased loved ones and was affectionately referred to as the “Patron of Holy Souls”.
As Nicholas entered the Order at its inception he learned to combine the ascetical practices of the Brettini with the apostolic thrust which the Church now invited the Augustinians to practice. At times Nicholas devoted himself to prayer and works of penance with such intensity that it was necessary for his superiors to impose limitations on him.
At one point he was so weakened through fasting that he was encouraged in a vision of Mary and the child Jesus to eat a piece of bread signed with the cross and soaked in water, to regain his strength.
Nicholas repeated these steps throughout the community to help the sick, resulting in numerous miracles of healing. In his honor the custom of blessing and distributing the “Bread of Saint Nicholas” is continued by the Augustinians in many places to this day including his shrine.
On account of his kind and gentle manner his superiors entrusted him with the daily feeding of the poor at the monastery gates, but at times he was so free with the friary’s provisions that the procurator begged the superior to check his generosity. Even before his ordination he was sent to different monasteries of his order, at Recanati, Macerata etc., as a model of generous striving after perfection.
He was ordained in 1271 and said his first Mass with exceptional fervor; thereafter, whenever he celebrated the holy Mystery he seemed aglow with the fire of his love. He lived in several different monasteries of the Augustinian Order, engaged principally in the ministry of preaching.
In 1275 he was sent to Tolentino, and remained there for the rest of his life. He was known for his humility, meekness and sanctity. His preaching, instructions and work in the confessional brought about numerous conversions, and his many miracles were responsible for more, yet he was careful not to take any credit for these miracles. “Say nothing of this,” he would insist, “give thanks to God, not to me. I am only a vessel of clay, a poor sinner.”
As a priest and religious, he was full of charity towards his brother Augustinians as well as towards the people to whom he ministered. He visited the sick and cared for the needy. He was a noted preacher of the Gospel. He gave special attention to those who had fallen away from the Church. People considered him a miracle worker. He often fasted and performed other works of penance. He spent long hours in prayer.
Nicholas worked to counteract the decline of morality and religion which came with the development of city life in the late thirteenth century. A fellow religious describes Nicholas’ ministry in these words:
“He was a joy to those who were sad, a consolation to the suffering, peace to those at variance, refreshment to those who toiled, support for the poor, and a healing balm for prisoners.”
Nicholas’ reputation as a saintly man and a worker of miracles led many people to the monastery of Tolentino.
He worked as a peacemaker in a city torn by civil war. Preached every day, wonder-worker and healer, and visited prisoners. Received visions, including images of Purgatory, which friends ascribed to his lengthy fasts. Had a great devotion to the recently dead, praying for the souls in Purgatory as he traveled around his parish, and often late into the night.
Reported to have resurrected over one hundred dead children, including several who had drowned together. Legend says that the devil once beat Nicholas with a stick; the stick was displayed for years in the his church. A vegetarian, Nicholas was once served a roasted fowl; he made the sign of the cross over it, and it flew out a window. Nine passengers on ship going down at sea once asked Nicholas’ aid; he appeared in the sky, wearing the black Augustinian habit, radiating golden light, holding a lily in his left hand; with his right hand he quelled the storm. An apparition of the saint once saved the burning palace of the Doge of Venice by throwing a piece of blessed bread on the flames.
He spent the last thirty years of his life in Tolentino preaching with wonderful success, where the Guelfs and the Ghibellines were in constant strife. Nicholas saw only one remedy to the violence: street preaching, and the success of this apostolic work was astounding. “He spoke of the things of Heaven,” says his biographer St. Antonine. “Sweetly he preached the divine word, and the words that came from his lips fell like flames of fire. Among his hearers could be seen the tears and heard the sighs of people detesting their sins and repenting of their past lives.”
Towards the end diseases tried his patience, but he kept up his mortifications almost to the hour of death. He died surrounded by his community. He possessed an angelic meekness, a guileless simplicity, and a tender love of virginity, which he never stained, guarding it by prayer and extraordinary mortifications. Many of the cures obtained through Saint Nicholas’ prayers were received while he himself was infirm.
In 1345 a lay Brother cut off the arms of his body intending to take them to Germany as relics, and the friars then hid his body to prevent further attempts of this kind. It has not been found to this day, but the arms have been preserved. It is recorded that they have bled on several occasions, usually; it is said, before some calamity that befell the Church or the world.
When in 1884 Nicholas was proclaimed “Patron of the Souls in Purgatory” by Pope Leo XIII, confirmation was given to a long-standing aspect of devotion toward this friar which is traced to an event in his own life. On a certain Saturday night as he lay in bed, Nicholas heard the voice of someone who identified himself as Fra Pellegrino of Osimo, a deceased friar whom Nicholas had known. Fra Pellegrino revealed that he was in Purgatory and begged Nicholas to offer Mass for him and for other suffering souls so that they might be set free. For the next seven days Nicholas did so and was rewarded with a second vision in which the deceased confrère expressed his gratitude and assurance that a great number of people were now enjoying the presence of God through Nicholas’ prayers. As this event became known, many people approached Nicholas, asking his intercession on behalf of their own deceased relatives and friends.
Like many of the saints, Nicholas received from God a particular calling. It was not to feed the poor, although he did, nor to be zealous for the salvation of souls, although he was. His call was to help the Holy Souls in Purgatory.
St. Nicholas had a great love for the Holy Souls. He would offer Mass, pray and do penance for them so they could more quickly enter Heaven. Because many Catholics have forgotten about the souls in Purgatory, except when November 2nd – All Souls Day – comes around, St. Nicholas can teach a valuable lesson.
Nicholas died in Tolentino on 10 September 1305. He was canonized by Eugene IV in 1446: the first member of the Augustinian Order to be canonized.
Saint Nicholas’ body is “preserved” and venerated by the faithful in the basilica in Tolentino in the city of Tolentine which bears his name. His feast is celebrated by the Augustinian Family on 10 September.
With so little attention given to the Holy Souls today we thought why not follow the example of St. Nicholas and do something about it? Since the Church has dedicated the month of November to the Holy Souls.
Let us follow the example of St. Nicholas and start praying for them daily!
St. Nicholas of Tolentino, pray for us!