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The real Saint Diego

And the miracles he worked for the kings of Spain

During World War II, Diego’s body was removed from under the altar in the Cathedral of Alcala. - Image by Rick Geary
During World War II, Diego’s body was removed from under the altar in the Cathedral of Alcala.

Dear Matthew Alice: I've read in James Michener’s book Iberia that the real source of our fine city’s name comes from a dead friar who wouldn’t decompose and who was granted sainthood. I’ve been to Old Town to inquire about this, and all I get is blank stares. What’s the story? — Gary Hunter, San Diego

I managed to get blank stares from a lot more places than that, Gary. I finally cornered San Diego’s patron saint in the archives of the Catholic Diocese after a lengthy crosstown foot chase. I even located a photograph of him from the 1950s, and he looked pretty good.

We have a couple of problems when it comes to finding out about our San Diego. First is the confusion about which Diego the city is named for and the second is that our particular Diego was no self-promoter. He preferred lying low and doing good deeds to lobbying for sainthood. He never bothered to learn to read or write, so we have no autobiographical records.

Actually, five saints are named Diego (in English, James; in Latin, Didacus). Lots of people think our city is named for St. James the Apostle, but ours was a Franciscan lay brother bom around 1400 in a village near Seville. From his hermitage cave on the Canary Islands, he dedicated his life to feeding the poor from his gardens and with money raised from the sale of carved wooden utensils. It’s said he daily took a dip in a pool of cold water to ward off temptations of the flesh.

If he’d stayed on the islands, our city now would probably be called San Miguel, the name originally given to the area by Juan Cabrillo. But around 1450, Diego went to work in a Franciscan convent infirmary in Rome. The story goes that because of Diego’s great piety and spiritual powers, he was the intercessor responsible for a number of “miracle” cures and attracted a certain amount of high-powered attention. His reputation followed him to his final station, the infirmary and gardens of the Spanish convent at Alcala de Henares, where kings and commoners sought him out for cures. He died there, “emaciated” in one description, in 1463.

A year later, when the king of Castile fell off his horse and messed up his arm, he knew just the cure. He went to the convent at Alcala and demanded to touch Fray Diego’s body. They popped open the casket, the king touched Diego, his injury was healed. No paperwork, no waiting in line, no big ER bill. People were amazed, though, that Diego’s body appeared “uncorrupted by the tomb.”

But the miracle that finally put Fray Diego over the top, saint-wise, happened 100 years later. It’s the event described in Michener’s Iberia. Don Carlos, the good-for-not-much son of King Philip II is creeping up some stairs to get cozy with a little senorita who’s caught his eye. The love-struck klutz apparently slipped, fell, and did a major number on his dome. Dad calls in all the cranium experts, who cut back his scalp, poke, prod, and say there’s nothing else they can do for him. (Reports vary as to whether his skull was drilled to drain off accumulating blood.) Then some charlatan almost kills the kid with a lump of caustic black glop. At this point, church records differ from the Michener account, saying it is the king himself who decides Fray Diego is his son’s only hope. Don Carlos has been comatose for a few days from the encounter with the shaman’s magical poultice, so they must have figured it would be less trouble to bring Diego to the prince than vice-versa. The Franciscans remove Diego’s remains from the casket, schlep him to the castle, and put the cadaver in bed with Carlos for the night. Maybe not as much fun as a frisky senorita, but the next day Carlos is awake and alert, telling anybody who’ll listen about the dream he’s had about spending the night with a friar. Diego’s body apparently “remained as supple as on the day he died,” according to a present-day history, based on old records, in the local diocese archives. The king immediately begins to bug the pope to canonize Diego.

The job application for sainthood is pretty long, and you can be sure Rome does a thorough background check. The petition listed 130 miracles attributed to Diego, and apparently enough of them stood the scrutiny to elevate Fray Diego de San Nicolas (his birthplace) to San Diego (St. Didacus) de Alcala in 1588.

During World War II, Diego’s body was removed from under the altar in the Cathedral of Alcala, buried for safekeeping in the cathedral’s graveyard, then moved back into the cathedral. (Have any earthly remains been more mauled and hauled? He probably keeps a bag packed at all times.) Spanish explorer Sebastian Vizcaino renamed our town “San Diego” in 1602. That was the name of his ship, and his crew’s first Mass at this location was said on Diego’s saint day, November 12.

The diocese archives contain a 40-year-old newspaper photo of the Bishop of San Diego (CA) beside the saint’s ornate silver casket in Alcala. The lid’s open, and you can just make out his skull and a bit of his upper body. The picture’s murky, and the angle is a little odd, but San Diego does appear to be in a state resembling mummification. So, Gary, you couldn’t take Diego out, dress him up, and convince people he’s just napping. But he’s not a heap of dust either, after 530 years.

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During World War II, Diego’s body was removed from under the altar in the Cathedral of Alcala. - Image by Rick Geary
During World War II, Diego’s body was removed from under the altar in the Cathedral of Alcala.

Dear Matthew Alice: I've read in James Michener’s book Iberia that the real source of our fine city’s name comes from a dead friar who wouldn’t decompose and who was granted sainthood. I’ve been to Old Town to inquire about this, and all I get is blank stares. What’s the story? — Gary Hunter, San Diego

I managed to get blank stares from a lot more places than that, Gary. I finally cornered San Diego’s patron saint in the archives of the Catholic Diocese after a lengthy crosstown foot chase. I even located a photograph of him from the 1950s, and he looked pretty good.

We have a couple of problems when it comes to finding out about our San Diego. First is the confusion about which Diego the city is named for and the second is that our particular Diego was no self-promoter. He preferred lying low and doing good deeds to lobbying for sainthood. He never bothered to learn to read or write, so we have no autobiographical records.

Actually, five saints are named Diego (in English, James; in Latin, Didacus). Lots of people think our city is named for St. James the Apostle, but ours was a Franciscan lay brother bom around 1400 in a village near Seville. From his hermitage cave on the Canary Islands, he dedicated his life to feeding the poor from his gardens and with money raised from the sale of carved wooden utensils. It’s said he daily took a dip in a pool of cold water to ward off temptations of the flesh.

If he’d stayed on the islands, our city now would probably be called San Miguel, the name originally given to the area by Juan Cabrillo. But around 1450, Diego went to work in a Franciscan convent infirmary in Rome. The story goes that because of Diego’s great piety and spiritual powers, he was the intercessor responsible for a number of “miracle” cures and attracted a certain amount of high-powered attention. His reputation followed him to his final station, the infirmary and gardens of the Spanish convent at Alcala de Henares, where kings and commoners sought him out for cures. He died there, “emaciated” in one description, in 1463.

A year later, when the king of Castile fell off his horse and messed up his arm, he knew just the cure. He went to the convent at Alcala and demanded to touch Fray Diego’s body. They popped open the casket, the king touched Diego, his injury was healed. No paperwork, no waiting in line, no big ER bill. People were amazed, though, that Diego’s body appeared “uncorrupted by the tomb.”

But the miracle that finally put Fray Diego over the top, saint-wise, happened 100 years later. It’s the event described in Michener’s Iberia. Don Carlos, the good-for-not-much son of King Philip II is creeping up some stairs to get cozy with a little senorita who’s caught his eye. The love-struck klutz apparently slipped, fell, and did a major number on his dome. Dad calls in all the cranium experts, who cut back his scalp, poke, prod, and say there’s nothing else they can do for him. (Reports vary as to whether his skull was drilled to drain off accumulating blood.) Then some charlatan almost kills the kid with a lump of caustic black glop. At this point, church records differ from the Michener account, saying it is the king himself who decides Fray Diego is his son’s only hope. Don Carlos has been comatose for a few days from the encounter with the shaman’s magical poultice, so they must have figured it would be less trouble to bring Diego to the prince than vice-versa. The Franciscans remove Diego’s remains from the casket, schlep him to the castle, and put the cadaver in bed with Carlos for the night. Maybe not as much fun as a frisky senorita, but the next day Carlos is awake and alert, telling anybody who’ll listen about the dream he’s had about spending the night with a friar. Diego’s body apparently “remained as supple as on the day he died,” according to a present-day history, based on old records, in the local diocese archives. The king immediately begins to bug the pope to canonize Diego.

The job application for sainthood is pretty long, and you can be sure Rome does a thorough background check. The petition listed 130 miracles attributed to Diego, and apparently enough of them stood the scrutiny to elevate Fray Diego de San Nicolas (his birthplace) to San Diego (St. Didacus) de Alcala in 1588.

During World War II, Diego’s body was removed from under the altar in the Cathedral of Alcala, buried for safekeeping in the cathedral’s graveyard, then moved back into the cathedral. (Have any earthly remains been more mauled and hauled? He probably keeps a bag packed at all times.) Spanish explorer Sebastian Vizcaino renamed our town “San Diego” in 1602. That was the name of his ship, and his crew’s first Mass at this location was said on Diego’s saint day, November 12.

The diocese archives contain a 40-year-old newspaper photo of the Bishop of San Diego (CA) beside the saint’s ornate silver casket in Alcala. The lid’s open, and you can just make out his skull and a bit of his upper body. The picture’s murky, and the angle is a little odd, but San Diego does appear to be in a state resembling mummification. So, Gary, you couldn’t take Diego out, dress him up, and convince people he’s just napping. But he’s not a heap of dust either, after 530 years.

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