The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1978, Volume 24, Number 1
Thomas L. Scharf, Managing Editor


THE saint for whom our mission, pueblo, city, county, river, harbor, and universities are named is San Diego de Alcalá. Diego, or Didacus in Latin and English, was born in San Nicolas del Puerto near Seville in the Spanish Province of Andalusia in 1400. His parents were poor but pious as in the case of many saints.

As a young man he lived as a hermit and practiced asceticism prior to joining the Order of St. Francis of Assisi. Diego received the habit of a Franciscan brother at Arizafa and was sent to the Canary Islands as a missionary, where he was successful in aiding and instructing the people of this semi-tropical archipelago off the African coast. In 1445 he was chosen guardian of the Franciscan community on the Canary Island of Fuerteventura where he served as Superior until 1449.

Brother Diego accompanied Father Alonzo de Castro to Rome in 1450 to attend the canonization of their fellow Franciscan, St. Bernardine of Siena, and to join in the first Holy Year celebration. He remained in Rome for several years where he served as infirmarian at the Franciscan friary adjacent to the Church of Santa Maria in Ara Coeli, which still stands between the Victor Emmanuel monument and the Piazza del Campidoglio on the Capitoline Hill. This twelfth century Franciscan church has a side chapel with a fresco depicting San Diego as a missionary and provider for the poor. Our illustrious patron remained in Rome for several years where he was credited with many miraculous cures.

In 1460 he returned to his native Spain and became the infirmarian at the University of Alcalá founded by the Franciscan Cardinal Cisneros in the Province of Castile near present day Madrid. Brother Diego took care of the students and provided for the poor of the University community. The University of Alcalá numbers among its alumni, the saints Ignatius of Loyola and Thomas of Villanova, and authors, Miguel Cervantes and Lope de Vega. Diego died at Alcalá in 1463 and was buried there.

King Philip II of Spain petitioned Diego’s canonization when his son, Don Carlos, was cured after the body of Diego was placed next to Don Carlos. Diego’s sainthood was decreed in 1588 by Pope Sixtus V, and his incorrupt body was enshrined in the Cathedral of Alcalá. During the Spanish civil war his remains were removed from the Cathedral to prevent desecration and buried in the adjoining cemetery, which provided a unique location for hiding a body. After the war the miraculously incorrupt body was re-enshrined in the Cathedral beneath the high altar where it has been viewed by pilgrims from the world over, including many Californians.

A painting of San Diego by Murillo occupies a place of honor in the Louvre, and another painting of him, originally at Mission San Diego, is now at Mission San Luis Rey. He is usually depicted with food in his hands which he was accustomed to distribute to the poor.

In 1542, Captain Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo first named this great corner of the world, San Miguel, because he arrived on the feast day of St. Michael. In like manner when Captain Sebastián Vizcaíno entered our magnificent harbor in 1602 on the eve of the feast of St. Didacus, he renamed the area in honor of this saint. Father Junípero Serra retained the name of San Diego de Alcalá, his brother Franciscan, when he established the first mission of Alta California on July 16,1769.