By Father Mieczysław Piotrowski TChr,
The Spanish town of Calanda, located 118 km (75 miles) from Saragossa, witnessed "el milagro de los milagros" or, “the miracle of miracles.” Miguel Juan Pellicer, aged twenty-three, had his amputated right leg miraculously restored. After many years of painstaking research and poring over historical documents, the famous Italian writer and journalist Vittorio Messori published his account of this exceptional event in a book entitled Il Miracolo (The Miracle).
On March 29, 1640, between ten and ten thirty in the evening, while asleep in his family home in Calanda, Miguel Juan Pellicer had his right leg miraculously restored after it had been surgically removed in a hospital in Saragossa twenty-nine months earlier. Pellicer had a strong devotion to Our Lady of Pilar and it was to her intercession that he attributed the restoration of his lost limb. The following is a brief account of the sensational Marian miracle, which the locals call el milagro de los milagros (‘the miracle of miracles’). After years of studying scores of archival documents concerning the event, Vittorio Messori arrived at the conclusion that from a scientific point of view the whole dossier related to a historical fact. The documents speak of the “restoration” of an amputated leg — a unique event, the actual occurrence of which defies doubt. A detailed reconstruction of the events has been possible thanks to affidavits made under oath and notarized three days after the fact, and to the files of the canonical inquiry that began sixty-eight days later.
Accident and amputation
The parish records in Calanda reveal that Miguel Juan Pellicer was born on March 25, 1617, the second of eight children of Miguel Pellicer Maj and Maria Blasco. His parents were poor farmers — simple and deeply devout. Miguel Juan grew up in an atmosphere of true piety. He prayed daily, went regularly to confession, received Holy Communion, and had a strong devotion to the Virgin Mary. In 1637, when he was twenty years old, he left home to look for work. He found a job with his uncle Jaime Blasco, who lived in the vicinity of Castellon. In July of 1637, Miguel suffered a serious accident while driving a heavily laden two-wheeled grain cart drawn by a pair of mules. It appears that while riding one of the mules, Miguel Juan drowsed off and fell from his mount; as a result, one of the wheels ran over his right leg, crushing and breaking his shin bone. He was immediately taken to a hospital in Va-lencia (a record of the admission date can still be found in the archives: Monday, August 3, 1637).
His stay at the hospital in Valencia proved to have done him little good. Believing strongly that the doctors of the famous Royal and Public Hospital of Our Lady of Grace in Saragossa (190 miles away) would help him, he sought and received permission to go there. Despite the hot weather and the excruciating pain in his broken leg, he covered the distance in fifty days and reached his much-desired destination in early October 1637. By this time he was utterly wasted and had a high fever. Yet, he went first to the Shrine at Pilar where he made his confession and received Holy Communion.
In the Saragossa hospital, the doctors discovered that advanced gangrene had taken hold of his broken right leg. To save his life, they had to amputate the limb immediately. The decision to cut off the swollen leg, now black with gangrene, was made by Juan de Estanga, a physician famous throughout Aragon, in consultation with surgeons Diego Millaruel and Miguel Beltran. They proceeded to remove Miguel Pellicer’s right leg “four fingers below the knee.” They used a saw and a scalpel. The patient was sedated by alcohol — the only anaesthetic known in those days. Throughout the surgery the young man never stopped calling on Our Lady’s intercession.
After the operation, the surgeons cauterized the stump with a red-hot iron. They gave the amputated leg to a young assistant named Juan Lorenzo Garcia who, with the help of a friend, buried it in the hospital cemetery, in a marked place, in a deep hole twenty-one centimeters (8.5 in.) long. (Even this kind of detail was recorded in the inquiry files.) In those days so much respect was shown for the human body that all its amputated parts were buried in the cemeteries. Pellicer remained in the hospital for several more months. In the spring of 1638, after receiving a wooden leg and a pair of crutches, he was discharged.
Since the twenty-three year old man was now unable to earn his living, he received special permission to collect alms at the entrance to the Basilica del Pilar in Saragossa. In effect, he became a fulltime beggar. The people of Saragossa had a custom of visiting the Shrine at least once a day. The sight of the legless young beggar moved them to pity. He became a familiar sight — and a loved one, too; the more so, as every morning, before going to his begging post, Miguel Juan attended Mass in the Holy Chapel where the miraculous statue of Our Lady of the Column stood. Every day he asked the sextons for a small quantity of the lamp oil used in the Shrine so that he could rub it over his stump and the wound that refused to heal. Whenever he had money, he would sleep in a nearby inn called De las Tablas. (After the restoration of Miguel Juan’s leg, the owner of the inn, Juan de Mezasa, and his wife Catalina Xavierre, would witness to the fact that Pellicer was the same legless man who had come to sleep at their establishment.) Miguel Juan Pellicer would also sleep under a hospital portico where he was well known and kindly treated by the medical staff.
In early March of 1640, Miguel made up his mind to return to his parents in Calanda. The trip home (about 118 km or 75 miles) took him almost seven days. All this time his wooden leg pinched his stump and caused him intense pain. His family welcomed him with great joy. Since Miguel could no longer help his parents in the field, he resolved to visit the nearby villages and beg for alms. In those days, it was no shame for a disabled person without means to beg; rather, it was a duty that gave others an opportunity to show mercy. Thus Miguel would ride his donkey to the neighboring villages and quest for alms To arouse pity, he would show off the stump of his cut-off leg. In this way, thousands of people became witnesses to his disability and to the miracle that followed.
On Thursday, March 29, 1640, Miguel Juan did not go to collect alms but rather stayed at home to help his father fill baskets with dung. These baskets he then took by donkey to fertilize the field. After a full day’s work, Miguel came home very tired. At dinner, all saw the now healed stump of his right leg. Some guests even touched it.
That same evening, a cavalry detail looked for billets in Calanda. The Pellicers were ordered to put one soldier up for the night. For lack of space, Miguel Juan had to give up his bed to a cavalryman and sleep on a mattress in his parents’ bedroom. His father gave him his coat for a cover, but the coat was too short to cover his one foot. After dinner, around ten in the evening, Miguel Juan wished his parents and guests good night, left his wooden leg and crutches in the kitchen, and skipped off to bed. After saying his prayers and entrusting himself to Our Lady, he quickly fell into a deep sleep.
When Miguel’s mother entered the room where her crippled son lay sleeping — it was between 10:30 and 11:00 pm — she smelled a “wonderful heavenly scent” The woman raised her oil lamp and noticed not one but two feet — one placed over the other — sticking out from under the coat that covered him. Unable to believe her eyes, she approached the bed and then was sure that her eyes were not deceiving her. Shocked by the discovery, she called out to her husband, who ran in and removed the coat. What the Pellicers saw was an unbelievable sight. There lay their son with two healthy legs! A great miracle had occurred. Their son’s amputated right leg had been restored. Immediately they began to shout and shake him, to wake him up. It took a good while before Miguel Juan opened his eyes. His overwrought parents kept telling him, “Look, your leg has grown back!” One can only imagine Miguel’s astonishment and joy when he saw and felt that he indeed had two legs again and that he was no longer a cripple. In the meantime, the rest of the household came running in. With great awe they viewed the miraculously restored leg. Miguel Juan had no idea how this had come about. What he remembered was that before he was awakened he had had a dream of rubbing the stump of his severed leg with lamp oil from the Holy Chapel of Our Lady of Pilar. Of one thing he was sure. It was Jesus Christ who had worked this miracle — through the intercession of His and our Blessed Mother.
On recovering from the first shock, Miguel Juan began to touch and move his healed leg, as if he wanted to make sure that all this was true. In the light of the oil lamps, everyone inspected his miraculously restored leg. What they saw was a large scar left by the broken shin bone and three other smaller scars. These latter scars were the result of a dogbite he had received in his childhood, a lanced boil, and a bad scratch from a thorn bush. The scars showed beyond any doubt that this was the same leg that had been amputated and buried in the hospital cemetery almost two and a half years earlier. What had occurred, then, was not a growing back but rather a miraculous restoration of the severed leg. A surviving copy of the local newspaper Aviso Historico dated June 4, 1640 records that investigations carried out in the cemetery in Saragossa uncovered no trace of the leg that had been buried there.
The news of the extraordinary event spread quickly. The villagers flocked to the Pellicers’ humble cottage. They prayed aloud and offered thanksgiving to Jesus Christ and His Blessed Mother for this great miracle. All could smell the “wonderful heavenly scent” that lingered in the room for several days. The following morning, the parish priest, Fr. Herrero, the mayor, several high-ranking local officials, and two surgeons called at the Pellicers’ house. The latter spent a long time feeling and examining Juan’s right leg. All sought to verify in an official and scientific manner that the story was true. As early as March 30th, i.e. the day after the miracle, Martin Corellano, the magistrate responsible for law and order in Calanda, drafted the first official document relating to this extraordinary event. Within seventy hours of the miracle, church and public officials and a physican had drawn up an affidavit, signed by ten witnesses and duly notarized, attesting to the astounding occurrence at the Pellicers’ house. The document testified to a “divine intervention.” The healed man walked in a procession to the parish church where the people of Calanda had assembled. There they saw him walking on both legs. Only the day before they had seen him with only one leg. Having arrived at the church, Miguel Juan went to confession and attended a solemn thanksgiving Mass with the entire congregation.
Thanks to God’s direct intervention, the severed leg, which would have rotted away after two years of being buried in the ground, was restored and joined to the rest of the living body. This is clearly a sign given to us by Christ — a foreshadowing of the resurrection of our bodies upon His Second Coming. Even so, the Creator observed the laws of nature, for it would take several months before Miguel’s restored leg regained its full muscle tone and motor functions.
On April 25, 1640, Miguel accompanied his parents on a pilgrimage to the Shrine at Saragossa, there to offer thanks to the Virgin Mary for his restored leg. The city folk remembered the young man with one leg who used to beg at the Shrine. One can only imagine their amazement upon seeing Miguel Juan with two sound legs. No one was more amazed than Doctor Estanga, the surgeon who had amputated his leg and dressed the wound for two years. With his own eyes he saw that the leg he had cut off had been restored and was functioning normally. The event was medically inexplicable. The surgeons who had assisted him in the amputation were likewise astounded — along with the entire hospital staff.
Official recognition of “the miracle of miracles”
On May 8, 1640, the civil authorities of Saragossa launched an inquiry into the circumstances of the Calanda miracle — el milagro de los milagros. The city council appointed to the panel two well-known physicians and the Prosecutor General of King Phillip IV. The public inquiry observed all the procedural rules. A contemporary historian, Leonardo Aina Naval, who studied the inquiry files for many years, found it to be “a model of legal gravity, precision, and discipline.” Thus we can be sure that we are dealing with documents of the highest credibility. All ten members of the judicial panel were present throughout the inquiry. In addition, the Archbishop of Saragossa, Pedro Apaolaza Ramirez, along with ten theologians and lawyers, attended all the hearings. Twenty-four witnesses, selected from among the inhabitants of Saragossa, Calanda, and the surrounding villages, presented their evidence. The witnesses were divided into five groups: 1. Doctors and nurses, 2. Relatives and neighbors, 3. The local authorities, 4. Priests, 5. Others. Each of the parties interviewed was shown Miguel Juan standing with his legs exposed to the knee. The inquiry files show that the fact of the miraculously restored limb was so self-evident that no objection or doubt was ever raised against it. On 27 April 1641, after eleven months of careful investigation, the Archbishop of Sa-ragossa issued a decree stating that the restoration of Miguel Juan’s amputated leg was possible only thanks to God’s divine intervention. Here, then, is one of the most astounding miracles in history — a miracle confirmed by all the people of Saragossa, Calanda, and the surrounding villages.
The first imprimatured pamphlet dealing with the miracle was a summary of the inquiry files written by Jeronimo de San Jose, a discalced Carmelite. Dedicated to King Charles IV, it appeared in the Castilian language in 1641. Another pamphlet, written by a German doctor, Peter Neurath, appeared a year later. Next to the nihil obstat, Jesuit Father Jeronimo Briza, wrote: “On the order of the Honorable Father Gabriel de Aldama, Chief Viceroy of Madrid, I have examined the book by Doctor Neurath on the miracle wrought by the Virgin Mary of Pilar — a miracle such as men have been neither seen nor heard of in many centuries — and whose truth I myself experienced, for I met the young man first without a leg, begging for alms at the door of the Shrine of Saragossa, and then again in Madrid, at an audience with Our Lord the King, with both legs; and I saw him walk. I have seen the scar that the Virgin Mary left in the place where the limb had been severed — a sure sign that the leg had indeed been cut off; and not only have I seen it, but also all the Fathers of the Society of Jesus of this Royal College in Madrid. I have also met the parents of the healed man and the surgeon who per-formed the amputation.”
The humble bedroom where the miracle took place soon became a chapel. Later, on the initiative of the people of Calanda who wished to show their gratitude to God and Our Blessed Mother, a huge church with a tall belltower was built on the site of the Pellicer home. To this day, on March 29 of each year, the people of Calanda observe a feast day commemorating the miraculous event of 1640. In recognition of this day, the Apostolic See approved a special liturgical formulary along with numerous spiritual favors and indulgences.
Meeting the king
The miracle of Miguel Juan Pellicer’s restored leg became so popular throughout Spain that news of it reached the attention of King Phillip IV. When the inquiry came to a close and the miracle was officially declared, the Spanish ruler summoned the healed man to an audien-ce. The whole diplomatic corps was in attendance, including Lord Hopton, the English ambassador. It was he who sent a detailed account of the event to Charles I of England. The account has survived to this day. King Charles I, being the head of the Church of England, was so deeply convinced of the veracity of the miracle that he defended its credibility before outraged Anglican theologians. Thanks to Lord Hopton and other witnesses we know exactly what happened during the audience with King Phillip IV. Miguel Juan was accompanied by the First Notary of Aragon and the highest archdeacon of the bishop’s chapter. Each of them, in turn, gave the king a detailed account of the miracle.
Having listened to the accounts, Phillip IV was moved to tears and said that in the face of such obvious facts, there was no need of any further philosophizing or discussion, but instead it was necessary to accept the Mystery with joy and veneration. Next, he rose from the throne, approached Miguel Pellicer and knelt before him. Then he told Miguel Juan to bare his right leg and kissed it where it had been cut off and later miraculously restored. It was a moving homage paid on the knees to a subject — a beggar and illiterate man — by the ruler of a world empire, King Phillip IV.
Recently discovered documents in a Saragossa archive tell us that after being healed Miguel Pellicer was employed at the Shrine del Pilar as an assistant to the organist. In addition to working the organ bellows, he served as one of the sextons responsible for lighting the oil lamps in the Holy Chapel. The book of disbursements contains an entry stating the date of his death. He departed this world on the feast day of Our Lady del Pilar: October 12, 1654.
As Vittorio Messori observes in his book, “any person who would reject the truth of what happened in Calanda on that March evening in Holy Week of 1640 would have to doubt the whole history of mankind including the most certain, reliably attested facts….‘The Pellicer case’ is the kind of event that every scholar may — or rather must — accept as ‘absolutely true,’ as ‘historically certain,’ unless he gives up scholarly objectivity in favor of prejudice or doctrinaire thinking.’ In the words of the Archbishop of Saragossa, ‘the fact is as simple as it is shocking.‘ … As the inquiry shows, Miguel Juan was seen first without a leg and then with the leg. Thus it is inconceivable that anyone could doubt the fact.’ Period.”
The instant restoration of Miguel Juan Pellicer’s amputated leg was a spectacular manifestation of God’s work — a miracle unheard of in all of history. The event is a clear sign rendering the irony of atheists hollow, when they claim that no one has ever seen a hand or leg grow back after they were cut off.
Here is an unquestionable miracle, precisely of the kind demanded by Voltaire and like-minded atheists. Here is a miracle confirmed and notarized soon after its occurrence and upon the questioning of reliable witnesses under oath. Ernest Renan, an agnostic and bitter enemy of Christianity, observed that to fight atheism it would be enough to find a single credible miracle. Alas, in his ignorance, he was certain that history presented no such miracle.
The miracle of Calanda tells us that for God everything is possible. The event points to an act not of some undefined God, but of the Divine Person of Jesus Christ, the Triune God, Whom He revealed to us. The miracle is also a divine confirmation of the teaching of the Catholic Church, the sacraments administered by her, her sacred tradition, including the veneration of the Virgin Mary and the power of Her intercession.
“There the Virgin Mary wrought something she has never wrought for any other people” — sing the faithful each year on the feast day of the Milagro (Miracle) in Calanda and Saragossa.
The miracle of Calanda is also a sign for us to repent and believe in the resurrection of the body. Thanks to God’s extraordinary intervention, a leg that gangrene had rotted away and had to be amputated and later buried in the ground, returned to life after a period of twenty-nine months. This miraculous one-of-a-kind miracle is a confirmation of our belief in our own resurrection, for so will the bodies of all people rise again on the Day of Judgment.
Tomas Domingo Pérez. El milagrode Calanda. Y sus fuentes historicas. Edita: Caja Inmaculada. 2007.
Vittorio Messori. Cud. Ksiegarnia Sw. Jacka Katowice, 2000.
Andre Deroo. L’homme à la jambe coupée.1959.
The above article was published with permission from Miłujcie się! in November 2010