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Saint Diego de Alcalá

Category: Religious

Didacus of Alcalá (Spanish: Diego), also known as Diego de San Nicolás, was a Spanish Franciscan lay brother who served as among the first group of missionaries to the newly conquered Canary Islands. The confusion in names results from the fact he was born in the small town of San Nicolás del Puerto, in the province of Seville, but died at Alcalá de Henares on 12 November 1463.  


San Nicolás, in its demographic and urban insignificance, has a place in history, for having been the birthplace of one of the men who figure in the saints of the Catholic Church. Towards the end of the fourteenth century, without being able to specify the date more, the boy who was to take along with his name in royal documents and papal bulls was born from a humble village family the name of the place where he was born: San Diego de San Nicolás.

Diego was canonized by Pope Sixtus V in 1588, the first after a long hiatus following the Reformation, and the first of a lay brother of the Order of Friars Minor.   Diego is the saint to whom the Franciscan mission that bears his name, and which developed into the City of San Diego, California, was dedicated. He is thereby the patron of the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Diego.

Gifts - levitation

Diego was essentially a healer, but there are also stories and paintings that show him levitating.  As such he had a number of gifts.  The Spanish painter Bartolomé Estéban Murillo is noted for painting several representations of Didacus of Alcalá and in some he shows him levitating.  The Louvre Museum has/had a painting by Murillo, called the Miracle of San Diego in which he is levitating and he is also shown levitating in Saint Didacus in Ecstasy Before the Cross by Murillo, 1645-6.   The painting The Miracle of Didacus of Alcalá by Bernardo Strozzi, also shows him levitating.

His is just one of many paintings of levitating saints.  Nicola La Piccola represented Saint Martin de Porres, who was of the order of the Friars Preachers, rushing through the air to a crucifix placed on the altar.  Saint Martin de Porres also often showed the phenomenon of bi-location. [Ribet, Mystique, II, 188].  Saint Peter of Alcantara and Saint Jacinta were also painted rising to a crucifix. Saint Thomas of Cora rose up at the moment when he gave communion.  Brother Humile de Bisignano (1582 - 1637), of the Order of Reformed Minors of the Province of Calabria, was a levitator. Eight different plates of an engraving representing Pope Pius II in levitation are known, with this inscription:

PIUS VII, BRIDGE. MAX. - Savonae in ecasim iterum raptus, die assumptionis B. Mariae V. XIII Kalendas septembris 1811.

‘I know’, said Césaire d'Heisterbach (v. IX, c. 10), ‘a priest of our Order, who by a favour of God, whenever he says Mass with devotion, is lifted up with one foot in the air throughout the Canon until Communion; if he says Mass more quickly or less devoutly, or if he is disturbed by the noise of the assistants, this favour is taken from him."

Paintings do not count as evidence in this context as the artist uses his imagination to paint these pictures – especially of course when there is a gap of 200 years between the death of the saint and the painting.  But many painters did use now lost accounts of the incidents to do their paintings, as such, the paintings have great interest value.



Very little is known about his early years.  The safest of his biographies, due to the pen of Don Francisco Peña, lawyer and promoter in Rome of the saint's cause of canonization, and that he must, therefore, have the best information about Diego's life, as well he recognizes it. Don Cristóbal Moreno, translator in the sixteenth century into the Castilian of the Latin work of Peña, also records this insufficiency of data on childhood and the early years of San Diego. And even the History of the glorious San Diego de San Nicolás, written by the one who was the guardian of the convent of Santa María de Jesús, in Alcalá de Henares, where the Saint lived and died, is 'materialized' [sic] for this time of Diego's life.

Diego was born c. 1400 into a poor but pious family in the small village of San Nicolás del Puerto in the Kingdom of Seville. His parents gave him the name of Diego, a derivative of Santiago (St. James), the patron saint of Spain. As a child, he embraced the hermit life and, later, placed himself under the direction of a hermit priest living not far from his native town. He then led the life of a wandering hermit. Feeling called to the religious life, he applied for admission to the Observant (or Reformed) branch of the Order of Friars Minor at the friary in Albaida and was sent to the friary in Arruzafa, near Córdoba, where he was received as a lay brother.

During his years living in that location, he journeyed to the villages in the regions surrounding Córdoba, Cádiz and Seville, where he would preach to the people. A strong devotion to him still exists in those towns.

Diego was then sent to the new friary of the Order in Arrecife on the island of Lanzarote, part of the Canary Islands. That island had been conquered by Jean de Béthencourt about 40 years earlier and was still in the process of introducing the native Guanche people to Christianity.

In 1445, Diego was appointed as Guardian of the Franciscan community on the island of Fuerteventura, where the Observant Franciscans soon founded the Friary of St. Bonaventure. There, though it was an exception to the ordinary rules for a lay brother to be named to this position, his ‘great zeal, prudence, and sanctity justified this choice’.

Recall to Spain and healing work

In 1450, Diego was recalled to Spain, and from there he continued to Rome to share in the Jubilee Year proclaimed by Pope Nicholas V, and to be present at the canonization of Bernardine of Siena. In addition to the vast crowds of pilgrims arriving in Rome for Jubilee Year, thousands of friars had headed to Rome to take part in the celebration of one of the pillars of their Order.

These travelers brought with them various infections, which broke out into an epidemic in the city. Diego spent three months caring for the sick at the friary attached to the Basilica of Santa Maria in Ara Coeli, and his biographers record the miraculous cure of many whom he attended through his ‘pious intercession’.

He was then recalled again to Spain and was sent by his superiors to the Friary of Santa María de Jesús in Alcalá, where he spent the remaining years of his life in ‘penance, solitude, and the delights of contemplation’!


There he died on 12 November 1463 due to an abscess.  A chapel, the Ermita de San Diego, was built in Diego's birthplace between 1485 and 1514 to enshrine his remains in his native town.