Nicholas is one of the most-loved and venerated saints in our tradition, said to be only second to Mary in depictions by artists. He was bishop of Myra in present-day Turkey in the fourth century, and legends and accounts of his life have been told for ages.
His parents died when he was young and left him with a large inheritance. He resolved to use the money for charitable works and learned of a man who had fallen into poverty. The man had three daughters, but because he could not support them nor provide a dowry for their marriage, he was going to give them over to prostitution.
Nicholas learned of this family’s situation and, under the cover of darkness, tossed a bag of gold through the family’s window. The oldest daughter was soon married. The saint returned and performed the same act of kindness for the second daughter. When he approached to help the youngest daughter, the man was waiting for him and when he recognized Nicholas, he overwhelmed him with gratitude.
After being chosen as bishop of Myra, Nicholas was imprisoned and tortured during the persecutions of Christians during the early fourth century. When the Christian emperor Constantine released Christians from prison, Nicholas returned to Myra, where he confronted pagans and those who distorted the faith among the people in his region.
According to tradition, he attended the Council of Nicea in 325, which articulated the nature and personhood of Jesus as fully human and fully divine. It is said that Nicholas became so infuriated with a famous teacher who distorted the faith that he slapped him in the face.
St. Nicholas was so revered that there was competition for his relics. The reliquary chapel in the Basilica, which holds some relics of St. Nicholas, contains a stained glass image of his relics being transferred to Italy, where they rest today. The top image shows St. Nicholas as bishop and comes from the Snite Museum of Art on campus.
St. Nicholas is patron saint of Russia and Greece, among other nations, and is also patron of children. Catholics in Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands gave presents in his name, from which comes our custom of gift-giving at Christmas.
St. Nicholas, whose generosity has inspired Christians for ages, pray for us!
Image credit, top illustration: Italian, Portrait of a Figure Wearing a Mitre; Saint Nicholas, 18th century, pencil on laid paper. Snite Museum of Art, Gift of Luigi Gregori, AA1972.031.169.