Saint Didacus of Alcalá: “Blue-Collar” Franciscan

Saint Didacus of Alcalá: “Blue-Collar” Franciscan

On November 7, Franciscans in the United States remember Saint Didacus (Diego) of Alcalá (c.1400–1463), known for his life of charity and prayer, and as Patron of San Diego, California (in other countries his feast is celebrated on November 13).

A wandering penitent hermit

Little is known about Diego's early years. He was born about 1400 into a poor family in the town of San Nicolás del Puerto in the Andalusia region of Spain. He spent some years as a wandering penitent hermit before joining the Observant Franciscan friars near Córdoba.

Supporting brotherhood through manual labor

As a friar he worked at various manual trades to support the brotherhood. In 1441 he went to the Canary Islands as one of the first missionaries. Although lacking formal education, his good sense and zeal led him to be selected as guardian of the friary in Fuerteventura, where he defended the rights of the indigenous people. The opposition of the colonizers sent him back to Spain in 1449.

St Didacus of Alcala painting friary Fuerteventura 700pxlsRuins of the Franciscan church and friary in Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands where Saint Didacus served as a missionary.

Deep life of prayer

In 1450 Diego went on pilgrimage to Rome for the Holy Year and canonization of Bernardine of Siena; he remained there for some years tending the infirm friars and reaching out to the poor of the city. Returning to Spain, he spent the latter part of his life in tasks of humble service. He died, noted for his deep life of prayer, at Alcalá de Henares, not far from Madrid, in 1463.

St Didacus of Alcala painting Murillo 700pxlsSaint Diego feeds the poor in this painting by Murillo (1663).

Popular in Spain, Latin America

Diego was proclaimed a saint in 1588; King Philip II of Spain was especially eager for this in gratitude for a miracle worked at Diego's intercession on behalf of his son. For many years Diego was venerated in the Order as the special patron of those brothers engaged in manual “blue collar” work because he was the first Friar Minor to be canonized who was not ordained (according to tradition, Francis himself was a deacon). He is especially popular in Spain and Latin America.

Diego's feast is celebrated in most of the Franciscan Order on November 13; it is advanced to November 7 in the United States due to the memorial of America’s Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini on November 13.

St Didacus of Alcala Mission San Diego CA 700pxlsMission San Diego in San Diego, California, was founded by Saint Junipero Serra in 1769. The present church dates from 1803.

The importance of humble, manual labor

Diego’s life reminds us Franciscans of the important place of humble, manual labor. As Saint Francis said in the Rule of the Friars Minor:

The brothers should exercise that trade which they know, if it is not against the good of their soul and can be performed honestly. For the prophet says: “You shall eat the fruits of your labors. . .”

In his Testament, Francis reminded his brothers:

And I worked with my hands, and I still desire to work; and I earnestly desire all the brothers to give themselves to honest work. Let those who do not know how to work, learn!!

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Main image: Saint Diego brings bread to the poor in this painting by Zurbarán (c. 1650). According to a legend, Diego was "smuggling" bread from the friary to feed the poor when he was confronted by the local superior. Similar to the story told of Secular Franciscan Saint Elizabeth of Hungary, the bread was turned into roses!

Dominic Monti

Written by : Dominic Monti

Dominic V. Monti, OFM, is a Franciscan Friar of Holy Name Province (USA) and currently professor of Franciscan Research in the Franciscan Institute of St. Bonaventure University. A native of nearby Bradford, PA, he was educated at St. Bonaventure (BA); after joining the Order, he attended the Catholic University of America (STB), Union Theological Seminary, NY (STM), and the Divinity School of the University of Chicago (PhD). He devoted the greater part of his ministry to teaching the History of Christianity, in particular the history of the Franciscan movement. He has contributed two volumes to the Works of St. Bonaventure series and is author of Francis & His Brothers, a popular history of the Friars Minor. He is spiritual assistant to a federation of Poor Clares and the Franciscan Secular Institute, the Missionaries of the Kingship of Christ.
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