Known as “The Apostle of the North,” Saint Hyacinth (ca. 1185–1257) is a much honored figure in Roman Catholicism. He is the subject of a painting, Apparition of the Virgin to Saint Hyacinth by Ludovico Carracci (1592, now in the Louvre) and, among lesser artworks, a mosaic mural dominating the front of a church named for him in Dunkirk, New York. (CFI colleague Tom Flynn, Executive Director of the Council for Secular Humanism, called it to my attention, and I visited it to take the accompanying photo.) The mural depicts the future saint performing miracles, and therein lies a tale—or rather, several tales.
Born at the Lanka Castle in Silesia, Poland (now Prussia), he was a member of the noble family of Odrowaz. Little is known of his early life, and many alleged details “come from an unreliable account” (Coulson 1960, 230). He became an early priest of the Dominican order, headed a mission in Poland beginning in 1222, and performed missionary work in Poland, Prussia, Lithuania, Russia, and elsewhere, including the Balkans and even Scandinavia. He was canonized in 1594.
The Catholic Encyclopedia says of Hyacinth, “God glorified His servant by numberless miracles, the record of which fills many folio pages of the Acta SS [Acta Sanctorum or “Acts of Saints”], August, III, 309.” These include restoring to life a dead person and walking upon water—like miracles attributed to Jesus in the gospels. (I explain these in my The Science of Miracles [Nickell 2013, 178–182, 304, 305].) The standard of proof for such claims was not high. While Hyacinth was the first to be made a saint after the Congregation for Causes of Saints had established “scientific” investigation methods in 1588, Hyacinth’s canonization was approved, even though the facts of the “purported miracles are . . . notoriously unreliable” (Woodward 1990, 124–125).
The claims are based largely on what are called “Saints’ Legends.” These are the “narratives to which the term ‘legend’ originally applied exclusively—stories of the lives of Christian saints” (Brunvand 1978, 107). The term was eventually extended to other religious stories—about miracles, magical icons, answers to prayers, and so on. (Today folklorists recognize non-religious legend types as well.) Legends circulate as traditional tales, and, because of oral transmission, typically exist in different versions, the significantly different ones being termed variants (Brunvand 1978, 5–7).
It was “only through the scanty records discovered in cities and the early convents” that little is known about Hyacinth (Saint Hyacinth Odrowaz 2014). During the intervening three centuries from his death to his canonization, miracle tales proliferated and became inflated. Take the most commonly related narrative (depicted on the Dunkirk, NY, church). It tells of Hyacinth during the siege of Kiev by the Tartars celebrating Mass in a church there. He grabbed up the ciborium (a vessel containing the consecrated bread and wine) and started to flee. Suddenly, however, an alabaster statue of the Virgin spoke to him, asking to be taken too. And so he did, even though the statue was heavier than he normally could have carried. He led his community to the river Drieper where, allegedly, all followed him miraculously across the water (Saint Hyacinth Odrowaz 2014; Saint Hyacinth 2014).
The river-walking claim essentially duplicates an earlier one in the Province of Warsaw that had him walk across the river Vistula, leading three fellow missionaries. It is most likely, therefore, that the first event was added onto the second, creating a variant tale. Moreover, when miracles were needed for Hyacinth’s canonization, 408 witnesses supposedly corroborated the walking-on-the-Drieper miracle by attesting that they had been able—centuries later—to see the saint’s footprints which remained on the water! However, a number claimed the footprints were “to be still seen on the water of another river” (hence representing another variant). If this seemed incredible, one cleric advised that nothing is impossible for God (Saint Hyacinth’ Odrowaz 2014).
Brunvand, Jan Harold. 1978. The Study of American Folklore, second ed. New York: W.W. Norton.
The Catholic Encyclopedia. 2014. Online at https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07591b.htm; accessed March 31, 2014.
Coulson, John, ed. 1960. The Saints: A Concise Biographical Dictionary. New York: Hawthorne Books, 230.
Nickell, Joe. 2013. The Science of Miracles. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
Saint Hyacinth. 2014. Online at https://saints.sqpn.com/saint-hyacinth/; accessed March 31, 2014.
Saint Hyacinth Odrowaz. 2014. Online at https://opcentral.org/blog/saint-hyacinth-ordowaz; accessed April 2, 2014.
Woodward, Kenneth L. 1990. Making Saints. New York: Simon and Schuster.