Top five weird saints in the Catholic church

I’ve been visiting the shrines of some weird saints over the summer.

The stories, legends and myths attaching to these holy people can often be rather weird. Strange tales of how they were martyred in a gruesome fashion. At the shrines, you can find their entire body or a bone or a piece of cloth. Let’s look at some of the weird saints I encountered!

Saint Cassian is the oddest account of a martyrdom. A Christian in the Roman Empire who was teaching pagan children. This was during the reign of Julian the Apostate – who tried to turn the empire back to paganism after three decades of emperors who had converted to Christianity.

Cassian refused to sacrifice to the Roman gods and his punishment was to be turned over to his own pupils who were told to kill him with their pens and clay tablets. This took a while by all accounts – but Cassian urged them on desiring to die for his faith!

Cassian takes a while to die

Saint Apollonia is said to have been martyred during a riot in Alexandria under the reign of the Roman emperor Philip. Before her death, it’s said she had her teeth pulled out. And so rather ghoulishly, she is depicted holding a pair of pliers with a tooth in its grip. Yuck!

Wilhelm Borremans, Saint Apollonia, 1717

There’s many horrible ways to die but being grilled is probably the worst. Saint Lawrence is often depicted holding what looks like an iron bed mattress but it’s actually the metal grid to which he was tied and cooked.

Saint Lawrence and his grid

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Here’s the body of Saint Justina – a virgin woman from Padua in Italy. She converted to Christianity at a time when the Roman Empire was still pagan. The emperor Maximian himself tried to make her reject Christ but she refused. So she was martyred with a sword – which she holds close to her breast. Somehow, her body made it from Italy to Portugal and here it is…

Saint Justina – possibly!

And then there’s Bartholomew the apostle of Christ. He is said to have journeyed to India to convert people to Christianity but then came to grief in Armenia. There, he was executed by being skinned alive. Sometimes he’s also being crucified upside down at the same time. The depictions of him and his skin can be rather odd.

Bartholomew and his skin

Gruesome body of a saint on display!

The Catholic church has always enjoyed displaying the body of this and that saint – or parts of their body – for the reverence of pilgrims. Walking around London the other day – before the Coronavirus lockdown – I found one saint I’d not encountered before. His 17th century body is in pieces – for a grim reason!

Body of a 17th century saint on display in London

In the Catholic cathedral of Westminster in London I chanced upon the weirdest saint’s relic I’ve seen in a while. It’s the dismembered body of a 17th century saint who was executed in a very gruesome way then stitched back together again!

John Southworth (pictured above) was born in 1592 to what was described as a “recusant” Catholic family. That means a family paying fines in order to keep practising their Catholic faith, which was now no longer the religion of England.

Under the Tudor monarchs from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I, England had transformed from being a Roman Catholic country to adopting the new Protestant faith.

It had been a stormy period of change. The English monarchs had made themselves head of the church and overthrown the authority of the pope. Anybody still obeying Rome could face a traitor’s death.

Being a Catholic priest resulted in being branded or even executed. Undeterred, Southworth decided to become a priest and trained in France before returning to England.

The body of this saint ends up in four parts!

He faced spells of imprisonment over the years. Eventually, under the rule of Oliver Cromwell, Southworth was sentenced to death. This took the form of being hanged, drawn and quartered. To be more precise, his body was dragged through the streets. Then he was hanged but brought down while still alive.

Then his manhood was cut off, his intestines pulled out, his heart brought forth and finally, Southworth was chopped into four bits. The idea was that these dismembered body parts would be displayed in different places to warn others not to commit the same crime.

Spain acquires the body of this English saint

The Spanish Ambassador to London, a Catholic, bought the whole body – dismembered – for the princely sum of 40 guineas. He then had it embalmed and sewn back together. It ended up in a lead coffin at the English College in Douai, France where Southworth had trained to be a priest.

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In the 1920s, as the college faced having to move because of a new housing development, it was decided to send the bones to the Catholic Cathedral at Westminster in London. This isn’t Westminster Abbey by the way.

That was originally a Catholic monastery in the Middle Ages but had become a Protestant abbey after the Tudors and the Reformation. The Catholic Cathedral was build in the 19th century and you can visit it near Victoria tube station.

If you do visit the cathedral, you’ll see the rather ghoulish spectacle of John Southworth’s dismembered body in a priest’s garment, gloves, shoes and a mask. Underneath all this is presumably a broken skeleton by now.