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The Historical Saint Nicholas

Part 1 of 3

Nicholas, a citizen of Pbatras, was born ca. 270 AD of rich and devout parents. Patras was in Lycia, a province of modern Turkey. He was the only child of his father, Epiphanes, and his mother, Johanna.

The Miracles of Infancy

According to one tradition, on the day of his birth Nicholas stood up unaided in the bath while being washed. After that he took his mother's breast only twice a week, once on Wednesdays and Fridays. When he grew up, he avoided the pleasures of other young men and preferred to spend his time visiting churches, and whatever he could learn there of Holy Scripture he made sure to remember.

The Three Daughters

After his parents died he began to wonder how he might use his great riches, not to win any praise for himself, but rather for the glory of God. Now it happened that one of his neighbors, a nobleman who had fallen on hard times, was about to prostitute his three young daughters, hoping by this shameful business to raise enough money to support his family. When the saint learnt of this he was appalled at the thought of such a crime: he wrapped a sum of gold in a piece of cloth and threw it into the nobleman's house one night through a window, then stole away again. When the nobleman got up next morning, he found the gold and, thanking God, he arranged the marriage of his eldest daughter. Not long afterwards the servant of God did the same thing again. The nobleman, again discovering the gold and loudly singing the praises of his unknown benefactor, decided to sit up and keep watch, in order to discover who it was who had rescued him from his poverty. After a few days Nicholas threw double the amount of gold into his house; but the noise woke the nobleman and he gave chase as Nicholas ran off, shouting after him: 'Stop! Don't sneak away! I want to see you!' And, as he redoubled his efforts to catch him, he saw that it was Nicholas. Immediately he fell to the ground and tried to kiss his feet, but Nicholas stopped him, and made him promise never to reveal his secret until after his death.

Soon after Nicholas decided to become a priest and he undertook a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The first of many miracles concerning Nicholas’ relationship to sailors occurs during this pilgrimage.

Nicholas’ Election as a Bishop

On his return from the Holy Land, the bishop of Myra died, and the bishops met to appoint his successor. Now among them was one particular bishop of great authority, whose opinion was extremely influential. He urged the others to give themselves up to fasting and prayer, and that very night he heard a voice telling him to station himself at the doors of the church at daybreak, and to consecrate as bishop the first man he saw coming to church, whose name would be Nicholas. He recounted this to the other bishops and, urging them to devote themselves to prayer, he went to his post in front of the church doors to keep watch. At daybreak, miraculously directed by God, Nicholas came to the church before anyone else. The bishop stopped him and asked: 'What is your name?' With dove-like simplicity, he bowed his head and replied: 'Nicholas, a servant of your holiness.' So the bishops took him into the church and, though he struggled hard to resist them, installed him on the bishop's throne. But in all he did subsequently Nicholas displayed the same humility and gravity of manner, he passed whole nights in prayer; he mortified his body; he shunned the company of women; he was humble in his attitude towards others; he was an effective preacher, ardent in exhorting men to good, severe in his denunciation of evil.

In approximately 303 AD the emperors Diocletian and Maximtan began a terribly cruel persecution of the Church throughout the Roman Empire, starting in the city of Nicomedia where upwards of 20,000 Christians were burned in the church. Many Christians, including Bishop Nicholas, were arrested, tortured, chained and thrown into prison. Many also died for their faith, including Saint Lucia.

Eusebius of Caesarea, Palestinae (ca. 263-339), in his Church History, Book VIII, recorded the beginnings of the persecution:

It was in the nineteenth year of the reign of Diocletian, in the month Dystrus, called March by the Romans, when the feast of the Saviour's passion was near at hand, that royal edicts were published everywhere, commanding that the churches be leveled to the ground and the Scriptures be destroyed by fire, and ordering that those who held places of honor be degraded, and that the household servants, if they persisted in the profession of Christianity, be deprived of freedom. Such was the first edict against us. But not long after, other decrees were issued, commanding that all the rulers of the churches in every place be first thrown into prison, and afterwards by every artifice be compelled to sacrifices.

The martyrs of this time suffered multiple kinds of death:

…thousands of men, women, and children, despising the present life for the sake of the teaching of our Saviour, endured various deaths. Some of them, after scrapings and rackings and severest scourgings, and numberless other kinds of tortures, terrible even to hear of, were committed to the flames; some were drowned in the sea; some offered their heads bravely to those who cut them off; some died under their tortures, and others perished with hunger. And yet others were crucified; some according to the method commonly employed for malefactors; others yet more cruelly, being nailed to the cross with their heads downward, and being kept alive until they perished on the cross with hunger.

With the accession of Constantine in 313 AD, freedom of religion was reestablished as a law of the Empire. Nicholas and the others were released. Nicolas returned to his flock in Myra.

It is also stated that Nicholas took part in the Council of Nicaea in 325. However, there is no corroborating evidence of that allegation.

One Miracle Concerning Sailors

One day some sailors, in great peril at sea, tearfully offered up this prayer: 'Nicholas, servant of God, if what we hear of your power is true, grant that we may feel it now!' Immediately a figure appeared, looking just like the saint, and said: 'You have called me, and here I am.' And he promptly set about helping the crew with the sails and cables and the rest of the tackle, and all at once the storm abated. When later the sailors made their way to his church, though they had never seen him in the flesh before, they recognized him instantly. So they thanked God and the saint for their deliverance, but Nicholas told them it was due to God's mercy and their own faith, and not to any merits of his own.


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