Science & Culture

Joseph of Cupertino

Saint Joseph of Cupertino (San Giuseppe da Copertino) was born June 17, 1603, in Cupertino, Apulia, and named Giuseppe Maria Desa. Copious folklore and popular culture surrounds this saint.

Joseph was an Italian mystic whose life epitomized a complete lack of natural capacity and an extraordinary supernatural efficiency. He lacked every natural gift. He was incapable of passing a test, maintaining a conversation, taking care of a house, or even touching a dish without breaking it. Joseph of Cupertino had nothing in his favor except for the saving quality that he knew it. Other boys his age excelled or were attractive. Joseph thought little of himself and never looked for special treatment. Others nicknamed him "the Gaper," due to his habit of staring blankly into space. When he was 17, Joseph attempted to join the Franciscan Friars in various ways. Eventually, in his early twenties, he was admitted into a Franciscan friary near Cupertino. The most that the Franciscans would do was to give him the habit of the Third Order and appoint him to the stable where he could do little harm. Joseph was made the keeper of the monastery mule and was called "Brother Ass" by his companions.

Joseph decided that since he could never be a Franciscan, he could at least be their servant. He made no complaint and asked for no relief. He felt fortunate to be entrusted with any job. He obediently accepted the clothes and the food the friars gave him and slept on a plank in the stable. In spite of his dullness—and perhaps because of it—Joseph had a merry heart. However great his troubles, the moment a ray of sunshine shone upon him, he would be filled with joy and mirth. Troubles were an everyday occurrence; when brighter times came, he enjoyed them as one who had received a consolation wholly unexpected and entirely undeserved. His lightheartedness was contagious. 

Gradually, the friars began to take notice of Joseph. They would go to the stable for one reason or another, and always Joseph was there to welcome them with a sunny disposition. They recognized how little he thought of himself and how glad he was to serve. Although he could not be a begging friar, sometimes in his free moments he went out and begged for them on his own account. The friars saw how he was welcomed among the poorest of the poor, who saw better than others the man behind his oddities. Realizing that he might be a suitable Franciscan after all, they discussed the matter in the community chapter, and his sent case to a provincial council for consideration. It was decided to give him yet another trial.

The Superior decided to admit him to the monastery, hoping that he might learn enough to be ordained. The effort seemed hopeless. Joseph could not comment on any passage of Scriptures except one: "Beatus venter qui Te portavit" ("Blessed be the womb that bore Thee"). 

When the time came for his examination for the diaconate, the Bishop opened the Gospels at random and his eyes fell on that one text Joseph knew well, and the student was able to expound on it successfully. A year later, it was time for the priesthood tests. All the postulants except Joseph were very well prepared. The Bishop called on a number of the candidates, who responded superbly. Supposing that all were at the same intellectual level, the Bishop approved all of them without questioning the rest. Joseph was among those who were asked nothing. On March 4, 1628, at the age of 25, Joseph became a priest despite his limitations and the opinions of men.

Joseph had no delusions about himself, and his ordination did not make him think differently. On the contrary, knowing what he was, he could only act accordingly. In spite of his priestly office, Joseph lived the life he had lived before. He would wash dishes, sweep the corridors and dormitories, and do the dirtiest work that others shirked. If anyone protested that such work did not become a priest, he would only reply, "What else can Brother Ass do?"

Now a friar and a priest besides, his vision grew stronger. He could see God dwelling in His creation more than the material creation in which he dwelt. Joseph would stand still, exactly as the vision caught him, fixed as a statue, insensible as a stone, and nothing could move him. The brothers would use pins and burning embers to recall him to his senses, but to no avail. When he did revive and saw what had happened, he would call these visitations fit

s of giddiness and ask his companions not to burn him again.

Eventually in the midst of these ecstasies, Joseph would rise from the ground and move through the air. Absorbed in ecstasy, he would fly towards the altar or over it in the church, or to a shrine on a special festival. When he was out in the country begging, suddenly he would fly into a tree. Once, when some workmen were laboring to plant a huge stone cross in its socket, Joseph rose above them, took up the cross, and placed it in the socket for them.

On October 4, 1630, the town of Cupertino held a procession on the feast day of Saint Francis of Assisi. Joseph was assisting in the procession when he suddenly soared into the sky, where he remained hovering over the crowd. When he descended and realized what had happened, he became so embarrassed that he fled to his mother's house and hid. This was the first of many flights, which soon earned him the nickname "the Flying Saint." However, Joseph also found himself in trouble for returning home with a torn habit when people who regarded him as a prophet or a saint sought relics.

Joseph's life changed dramatically. His flights continued and came with increasing frequency. On hearing the names of Jesus or Mary, the singing of hymns during the feast of St. Francis, or while praying at Mass, he would go into a dazed state and soar into the air, remaining there until a superior commanded him to revive. His most famous flight occurred during an audience before Pope Urban VIII. When he bent down to kiss the Pope's feet, he was suddenly filled with reverence for Christ's Vicar on earth, and was lifted into the air. Only when the Minister General of the Order, who was part of the audience, ordered him down was Joseph able to return to the floor.

Joseph was the subject of an investigation by the Inquisition at Naples. Msgr. Joseph Palamolla accused Joseph of attracting undue attention with his "flights" and claiming to perform miracles. On October 21, 1638, Joseph was summoned to appear before the Inquisition and he was detained for several weeks. He was eventually cleared and released.

Afterward, Joseph was sent to the Sacro Convento in Assisi. Two years after his arrival there, he was made an honorary citizen of Assisi and a full member of the Franciscan community. He lived in Assisi for another nine years. During this period, people who wanted to experience his divine consolation—including ministers general, provincials, bishops, cardinals, knights and secular princes—sought out Joseph. Over time he attracted a huge following. To stop this, Pope Innocent X moved Joseph from Assisi to a secret location under the jurisdiction of the Capuchin friars in Pietrarubbia. Joseph continued to attract throngs, soon forcing him to move once again, this time to Fossombrone. The effort had little more success. Eventually Joseph was ordered to live in seclusion in Osimo, not speaking to anyone except the Bishop, the Vicar General of the Order, his fellow friars, and, in case of a health crisis, a doctor. Joseph endured his ordeal with great patience.

On August 10, 1663, Joseph became ill, but the experience filled him with joy. When asked to pray for his own healing he said, "No, God forbid!" He experienced ecstasies and flights during his last mass, which was on the Feast of the Assumption. In early September, Joseph could sense that the end was near and could be heard mumbling, "the jackass has now begun to climb the mountain!" Joseph of Cupertino died on the evening of September 18, 1663. He was canonized on July 16, 1767, by Pope Clement XIII. In 1781 a large marble altar in the Church of St. Francis in Osimo was erected so that St. Joseph's body might be placed beneath it. It has remained there ever since.

St. Joseph is the patron saint of air travelers, astronauts, and pilots who fly for the NATO Alliance. He is the patron of paratroopers and those serving in the Air Force. He is also the patron of students taking exams, weak students, and people with a mental handicap.

Cupertino, California, 50 miles south of San Francisco, was named in honor of St. Joseph of Cupertino on March 25, 1776, when Spanish explorers under Captain Juan Bautista de Anza camped in the area and named a small river, now known as Stevens Creek, for the saint. In 1978 the Province of Conventual Franciscans in California adopted him as their patron. Ironically or as might be expected, depending on your point of view, Cupertino’s public schools are among the highest academically ranked in the state of California. St. Joseph of Cupertino Church is the Catholic parish in Cupertino, California. A life-sized bronze statue of St. Joseph in mid-flight was installed in the church prayer garden in 2008.


St. Joseph of Cupertino in Popular Culture

A film was made about St. Joseph of Cupertino entitled The Reluctant Saint starring actor Maximilian Schell.

Image captions:

Image 1: Basilica of St. Joseph of Cupertino in Osimo, Italy, which houses the Saint's body. A picture of the Saint levitating is painted close to the ceiling, where his body often rose.

Images 2 and 3: Life-sized bronze statue of St. Joseph in mid-flight, St. Joseph of Cupertino Church prayer garden, Cupertino, California

Image 4: DVD cover for The Reluctant Saint (1962), directed by Edward Dmytryk.


"St. Joseph of Cupertino: The Dunce—1603-1663." EWTN: Global Catholic Network. Source.

"St. Joseph of Cupertino." New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia. Source.

"St. Joseph of Cupertino." Catholic Online. Source.