By rights, San Diego should be called St. Miguel or Iago City. And if a rather ghoulish miracle hadn’t occurred, and a particular pope hadn’t been in power, our Diego may never have become a saint.
On Thursday, September 28, 1542, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo made the turn at Point Loma and anchored near Ballast Point. It was the eve of the feast of Saint Michael Archangel. Spanish explorers commemorated new sites from the liturgical calendar. Thus, the bay and surrounding area became St. Miguel.
Sixty years later, when Sebastian Vizcaino sailed north aboard the San Diego, he vowed to honor Cabrillo’s names. But Cabrillo’s maps and descriptions were vague, and when Vizcaino anchored in the bay in 1602, he found “abundant water, firewood, and all varieties of fish… and in the surrounding country… much game.” He sounded the bay and found it had a greater capacity than Acapulco’s. Cabrillo made no such observations (his crew didn’t have the time; Kumeyaay natives attacked them, and he weathered a severe storm). So this might not be the same place. On November 12, the day of San Diego de Alcala, Vizcaino went ashore. His crew constructed a shelter. They held Mass, then celebrated the feast of St. James (“San Diego”) and named the area in his honor.
And who was San Diego? He was born early in the 15th Century in San Nicholas Del Puerto, a village in the province of Seville. His poverty-stricken parents named him after St. James — a.k.a. “Santiago” or St. Iago — and were members of the cult of St. James that flourished during the Renaissance. (In battle, Cortes’s men shouted, “Santiago!”) For 30 years, Diego worked as a porter at St. Francis de Arizona monastery, near San Nicholas. He grew vegetables on a hill and crafted wooden utensils to raise money for the poor.
A lifelong vegetarian, Diego was illiterate. After his apprenticeship, he became a Franciscan friar at the Casa-Grande convent in Seville. A strict “observant,” he shunned worldly recognition. And to refrain from “concupiscence,” he plunged himself daily into icy water. According to his hagiographers, he longed “to sail to the lost heathen beyond the seas” and “succor their sick souls.” Around 1441, the Church sent Diego and Juan de Santorcaz to the Isle of Fuerteventura (“strong wind”) in the Canary Islands.
Canary natives were fierce warriors, and Diego faced martyrdom at the hands of “hostile infidels” and “marauding tribes.” Instead, he became guardian of the convent and, showing “exemplary piety,” converted “the souls of many.”
Inspired by his achievements, Diego wanted to preach at La Gran Canaria, the largest of the islands with the most “ferocious” natives, but the Spanish soldiers accompanying him wouldn’t permit Diego to walk the line, once again, between proselytization and certain martyrdom.
He returned to Spain somewhere between 1443 and 1449. In 1450, the “Jubilee Year.” He was one of 4000 friars minor who went to Rome to celebrate the canonization of San Bernardino of Siena (1380-1444), “the most delightful preacher of the Renaissance.” (San) Juan Capistrano (1386-1456), ex-lawyer of Naples and leader of a crusade, headed the group. When plague broke out among them, “Friar Diego became even more renowned because of his care of the sick and dying at the Convent of Ara Coeli, where most of the Spanish friars were staying” (Case).
Diego turned the convent into a hospital and became its director. Hagiographers rush in where historians fear to tread. During the plague, according to legend, he made bread and medicines multiply. “Caught kissing the sores of those affected with a contagious disease, he replied that it was the best way to treat this kind of illness” (Englebert).
When he returned to Spain, in spite of his “observant” vow to remain anonymous, Diego became famous as an orator. This skill gained him a post, in 1456, at Alcala de Henares, a major commercial center and site of a famous university, “the hub of Spain’s humanist movement” (Case). Diego took up residence and preached at the university. When he became “too feeble” to teach, he worked in the infirmary, later in the garden and spent his final days as a humble doorkeeper. He died November 12, 1463. His students at Alcala petitioned immediately for beatification.
The Church credits Diego with 130 miracles. Even in his lifetime, people said he had “special powers” and was a great “ecstatic.” Crowds came from great distances to receive a cure for illness or to hear him preach. The King of Castille, Enrique IV, ate grapes only from Diego’s arbor at Alcala.
Two of Diego’s most famous “miracles” were posthumous. On a hunt in 1463, Enrique fell from a horse and had a stiff, possibly broken arm. “The king went to Alcala just after the death of Diego and had his body taken from the casket. After touching the dead friar’s body, the king immediately felt the pain and stiffness disappear, and he was able to resume normal activities. King Enrique ordered a chapel built to house the remains of Friar Diego” (Case).
In 1562, Don Carlos, son of Spain’s King Felipe II, fell from a horse, hit his head, and may have had a cerebral hemorrhage. The king’s physician recommended trepanning, drilling a hole into the skull to release “diseased blood” (during the Renaissance, at death, all skulls were trepanned to help one’s soul fly to heaven). Dr. Andreas Vesalius cut skin back, exposed the cranium, but decided against the operation. Don Carlos remained in a coma, near death. “A Moor from Valencia was summoned, but his potions had no effect. Finally, the king’s confessor persuaded Felipe II to summon the Franciscans of Alcala, who arrived carrying the century-old cadaver of Fray Diego, which they promptly placed in bed with the dying prince. In the morning Don Carlos awakened, and his miraculous recovery was instantly attributed to Diego” (Ide).
As Kenneth L. Woodward points out, in Making Saints: How the Catholic Church Determines Who becomes a Saint, Who Doesn’t, and Why, canonization – even of spiritual shoo-ins, people are “for certain, with God” – must run a gauntlet through local and ecclesial politics. “Popes have been canonizing saints for only the last thousand years. Since 1234, when the right was officially reserved for the papacy alone, there have been fewer than 300 canonizations” (Woodward). Diego of Alcala almost didn’t make it.