Saint Nicholas was born in the village of Sant’Angelo in Pontano, Italy in 1245. His parents, (the Gurrutti family) middle-aged and childless, made a pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint Nicholas of Bari, their special patron, to ask his intercession on their behalf. Shortly thereafter, a son was born to them whom they named Nicholas out of gratitude.
At an early age Nicholas was greatly moved by the preaching of the Augustinian, Father Reginaldo do Monterubbiano, prior of the monastery of Sant’Angelo, and requested admission to the community. He was accepted by the friars and made his novitiate in 1261. St. Nicholas directed his efforts to being a good religious and priest, and soon became renowned for his charity toward his confreres and all God’s people. His religious formation was greatly influenced by the spirituality of the hermits of Brettino, one of the congregations which came to form part of the “Grand Union” of Augustinians in 1256. whose communities were located in the region of the March where Nicholas was born and raised.
Characteristic of these early hermits of Brettino was a great emphasis on poverty, rigorous practices of fasting and abstinence and long periods of the day devoted to communal and private prayer. As Nicholas entered the Order at its inception he learned to combine the ascetical practices of the Brettini with the apostolic thrust which the Church now invited the Augustinians to practice. At times, Nicholas devoted himself to prayer and works of penance with such intensity that it was necessary for his superiors to impose limitations on him. At one point he was so weakened though fasting that he was encouraged in a vision of Mary and the child Jesus to eat a piece of bread signed with the cross and soaked in water to regain his strength. Thereafter he followed this practice in ministering to the sick himself. In his honor the custom of blessing and distributing the “Bread of Saint Nicholas” in continued by the Augustinians in many places today.
Nicholas was ordained to the priesthood in 1271. He lived in several difference monasteries of the Augustinian Order, engaged principally in the ministry of preaching. In 1275 he was sent to Tolentino and remained there for the rest of his life. Nicholas worked to counteract the decline of morality and religion which came with the development of city life in the late thirteenth century. He ministered to the sick and the poor, and actively sought out those who had become estranged from the Church. A fellow religious describes Nicholas’ ministry in these words: “He was a joy to those who were sad, a consolation to the suffering, peace to those at variance, refreshment to those who toiled, support for the poor, and a healing balm for prisoners.” Nicholas’ reputation as a saintly man and a worker of miracles led many people to the monastery of Tolentino.
When in 1884 Nicholas was proclaimed “Patron Saint of the Souls in Purgatory” by Pope Leo XIII, confirmation was given to a long-standing aspect of devotion toward this friar which is traced to an event in his own life. On a certain Saturday night as he lay in bed, Nicholas heard Fra Pellegrino of Osimo, a deceased friar who Nicholas had known. Fra Pellegrino revealed that he was in purgatory and he begged Nicholas to offer Mass for him and for the other suffering souls so that they might be set free. For the next seven days, Nicholas did so and was rewarded with a second vision in which the deceased confrere expressed his gratitude and assurance that a great number of people were now enjoying the presence of God through Nicholas’ prayers. As this event became known, many people approached Nicholas, asking his intercession on behalf of their own deceased relatives and friends.
Nicholas died in Tolentino on September 10th, 1305. He was declared a saint in 1446, the first member of the Augustinian Order to be canonized. Saint Nicholas’ body is venerated in the basilica in Tolentino which bears his name. His feast is celebrated by the Augustinian family on this day each September.