(Saint Bernard Corleone, photograph by Fortunat Bergant [Public domain], via Creative Commons)
This Capuchin monk was once the greatest duelist in Sicily
At his death in 1667, Saint Bernard of Corleone was likely the most respected Capuchin friar of his day. As a monk, he supposedly slept on an incredibly uncomfortable wooden board most nights, and for meals (when not fasting) he reportedly only ate bland bread and tasteless water. On a more social note, Saint Bernard cared for the sick and prepared food for his Capuchin brothers—hopefully he washed his hands before switching from one task to the other. Additionally, he was said to have performed miracles on animals, curing them of illness and mending their wounds. Legend claims that Bernard passed this gift to another friar before his death, but the friar is unnamed. Based on these characteristics, Bernard of Corleone seems to be a perfect saint—he was penitent, extremely generous and could perform miracles. Saint Bernard was indeed a distinguished Capuchin friar, but he was a very different man in his younger days.
Born with the name Filippo Latino (also Philipi Latini), Saint Bernard’s date of birth was February 6th, 1605. He was raised in Corleone, Sicily, which was under Spanish rule at that time. His father was reportedly a cobbler and leather-worker, who was well-known in the town for his kind heart and caring ways. Saint Bernard was trained in his father’s shoe-making profession, but the young saint had another passion—fencing.
Saint Bernard of Corleone proved to be a more than competent swordsman, and he likely joined the local military. Bernard was not content with only learning swordsmanship. No, he needed to prove and display his skill—which he did with relentless passion.
As a young swordsman and soldier, young Bernard welcomed any promising warriors to test their mettle. As more and more challengers lost to the future saint, Bernard gained a reputation for being the greatest swordsman in all of Sicily. Some sources claim that Bernard fought his duels in the defense of the weak and needy. Others claim that the young Saint Bernard was a violent man itching for good fights. Whatever his true motivation was, Bernard emerged as the best fencer in his land.
While Saint Bernard was in his dueling prime, something happened to put him on the path towards priesthood. In all accounts, the cause of Saint Bernard’s existential crisis lay in his dueling. There seem to be two main stories detailing the end of Bernard’s career as a duelist champion. The two stories are as follows:
The first story is the lighter of the two. Bernard and a promising opponent fought in a fencing match. As always, Saint Bernard had better skill and technique, and easily bested the challenger. This time, however, there was a problem. Saint Bernard was sloppy with his victory and seriously wounded the opponent, leading to the challenger’s arm needing to be amputated. In an almost too-good-to-be-true ending, Saint Bernard later found the man, asked and received forgiveness, and the amputee and the amputator became the best of friends. Not wanting to cause any more harm, Bernard put down his sword and joined the Capuchin monks to live the rest of his days in penance.
The more macabre version of the story begins the same way—a promising swordsman challenged Saint Bernard to a duel. Again, Saint Bernard’s skill and technique won the day, but in this version, the saint did more than seriously maim his opponent. Saint Bernard killed the challenger. With the dead swordsman unable to provide forgiveness, Saint Bernard fled, fearing revenge, reprisals and, perhaps, the law. Bernard found safety and shelter among the local Capuchin friars. In his remorse for killing his opponent, and his respect for the monks who took him in, Saint Bernard joined their order and became a model friar.
Perhaps, bits of both of the tales are true. All we know is that Saint Bernard joined the Capuchin Order in 1632. From then on, Bernard became one of the most respected and admired of the Capuchin friars until his death in 1667. Legend claims that Saint Bernard was such a celebrity figure that his funeral resembled a parade, with well-wishers queuing up to pay respects to the swordsman saint.
Pope Clement XIII recognized Saint Bernard of Corleone’s honor and virtue in 1762. The same pope then beatified (recognized Bernard as a blessed figure enjoying heaven) six years later in 1768. Saint Bernard only received the full mantle of sainthood recently, by Pope John Paul II in 2001.