BLESSED NICHOLAS PUGLIA OF GIOVENAZZO
Father Puglia, after the medieval custom, is often called Nicholas of Giovenazzo, from the place of his birth. From the start, all Dominican writers, together with a number of Italian authors, gave him the title of "blessed." He first saw the light of day in the small episcopal city of Giovenazzo, in the old Kingdom of Naples, and the Province of Bari. This was in the year of our Lord 1197. His father was Blase (Biagio, or Biasio) Puglia, a gentleman and a pious Christian. From his tenderest years, his splendid parents gave him every educational advantage, as well as carefully instructed him in his religion; and it afforded them no little happiness to see that their son's natural inclination led him to the practice of virtue.(1)
Indeed, almost from his infancy, the youth gave no uncertain signs of what he was one day to become. He showed himself so disposed to penance and mortification that his parents and teachers had rather to moderate his ardor, than to urge him on to a good, Catholic life. As time wore along, he grew in wisdom and knowledge, for he was an industrious student. While mastering his books, he kept up his practice of Christian piety.
Thus young Puglia prepared himself for the call of God, when it became known to him. He learned it in this way. When twenty years of age, he heard Saint Dominic deliver a sermon. The divine word, as it came from the lips of the founder of the Friars Preacher, made so strong an impression on Nicholas's docile soul that he at once saw that his vocation was to a life in the Order of Preachers. Following the impulse of grace, immediately after the orator descended from the pulpit, the pious son of Blase Puglia threw himself at his feet, and with as much humility as earnestness begged to be received into the new religious institute.
Father Malvenda tells us that Dominic, having given the young man the habit then and there, sent him to a convent just built in Canosa, Province of Bari, which was afterwards destroyed by an earthquake. In this retreat Nicholas, ever grateful for his vocation, thought only of proving true to his new life. He rose higher and higher in the way of perfection. He set no limit to the sanctity after which he strove. Nor did God long delay to make known how much He cherished the pure soul of the youthful religious. However, we shall not attempt to give all the extraordinary things which biographers and historians have written about him. To do so would extend our sketch to undue length.
Suffice it then to say that, in our opinion, Nicholas' constant effort to advance in perfection day by day was one of his outstanding virtues. Certainly nothing in his life edifies us more. His fidelity to grace and his calling as a Friar Preacher did not belie his hopes. The innocence and candor of his character made him loved by all. They so endeared him to Saint Dominic that the patriarch often took him as a companion on his missionary tours in order to initiate him in the apostolic life under his own eyes.
Father Puglia profitted greatly from the example and instruction of the saint. After the founder's death, he continued at the same work, which brought him such a reputation that he was in demand everywhere. In 1223, his superiors sent him to preach in his native Giovenazzo. Even there he made many conversions; but they were more the result of his zeal, evident sanctity, and the wonders he wrought, than of his burning eloquence. Still greater perhaps was the success of the lenten course of sermons he gave in 1224 at the cathedral of Trani, in the same province. Here the archbishop was so pleased with the holy man that he joined with the people, not only in urging that the fathers should establish themselves in the city, but also in offering to build a church and convent for the Order.(2)
Our blessed wrote to his superiors about the generous proffer. No sooner was it accepted than the citizens of Trani began the structures. They were most generous in their donations -- even vied with one another to see who could perform the most work. The new monastery and church were given the name of Holy Cross, which, just as the choice of their location, is said to have been determined by a miracle. The convent soon became a novitiate. In the dormitory long hung an excellent painted likeness of Father Puglia, which may still be there, with the inscription: "Blessed Nicholas of Giovenazzo, the Founder of this Convent of the Holy Cross, in Trano" (Beatus Nicolaus de Juvenatio hujus Conventus Sanctae Crucis de Trano Fundator).
While still a very young man, the fathers of the Roman Province elected Blessed Nicholas for their provincial. Despite his age and lack of experience, he filled the position with admirable prudence. Indeed, the gentleness of his rule combined with his good judgment to make it a pleasure to obey, whatever he commanded. God also blessed his provincials by sending a large number of subjects, who drank in his spirit of study, piety, and observance, which caused the Roman Province to be long a model for the rest of the Order. These men established houses in many cities, whose citizens, eager to profit by the preaching and example of the Friars Preacher, spared neither time nor expense to build convents and churches for them.
The church of the Dominicans which the people of Perugia bad built in their city in 1233, while Father Puglia labored in their midst, has too interesting a history for all of it to be omitted. There, in 1235, or two years after its erection, Gregory IX canonized Saint Elizabeth, daughter of King Andrew II of Hungary. There again, in 1253, as we have seen, Innocent IV performed the ceremony of canonization for Saint Peter of Verona, commonly called Peter Martyr. Clement IV, such was his esteem for the fathers, himself dedicated it in honor of Saint Dominic. This was in 1265.
There Blessed Benedict XI, O. P., was buried at the time of his death, 1304. The place is still redolent with his memory.
The same year in which he founded this sanctuary of piety, Father Nicholas had the sad, yet uplifting, consolation of assisting at the translation of the relies of his intimate friend and treasured benefactor, Dominic Guzman. He had been a witness to many of the wonders which God wrought through the intercession of the saint. With papal permission, he preached these everywhere in order to arouse the piety of the faithful. He used them to confute Jews and heretics, many of whom he is said to have brought into the Church. Several historians tell us that he made numerous conversions through his prayers and sermons. He seems to have met with his greatest successes in Bari, Apulia, and other provinces of southern Italy.
For forty years or more, Father Puglia labored almost without rest for the good of religion and the salvation of souls. Finally, convinced that the end was near, he determined to spend the rest of his days in prayer and more uninterrupted union with God. He chose the convent in Perugia for his place of retreat, where he died on February 11, 1265. It is said that he foretold the day of his death. During life he had been regarded as a saint. Now the faithful began to seek his intercession before the throne of heaven as of one who was specially beloved of God. In the convent at Perugia his likeness was painted, with the inscription: "Blessed Nicholas of Giovenazzo, a Disciple of Saint Dominic, and the Founder of this Convent" (Beatus Nicholaus de Juvenatio, Discipulus Sancti Dominici, huius Coenobii Fundator). Many miracles were attributed to him.
This public veneration towards Christ's faithful servant continued on through more than five centuries. Finally, Leo XII, who ascended the throne of Peter in 1823, after a mature examination into the facts of Father Nicholas Puglia's life, and the devotion shown to him, permitted the Friars Preacher throughout the world to recite the divine office and say mass in his honor. This was virtually to declare him a blessed in heaven. February 14 is kept as his feast day.(3)
1. ALBERTI, Leander, O. P., De Viribus Illustribus Ordinis Praedicatortum, folio 225; DE CASTILLO, Ferdinand, O. P., Historia General de Santo Domingo y de Su Orden, passim; HUMBERT of Romans, Cronica Ordinis Praedicatorum; MALVENDA, Thomas, O. P., Annales Ordinis Praedicatorium, p. 517 ff; MARCHESE, Thomas, O. P., Sagro Diario Domenicano, I, 108 ff; RAZZI, Seraphin, O. P.
2. We tried to learn the name of this archbishop, but did not succeed. Gams (Series Episcoporum, p. 933) has a gap at this time for Trani. (Ed. note).
3. This last paragraph is an addition to Father Touron's work. Father Puglia was not beatified for more than eighty years after the sketch was written. (Ed. note).