After Padre Pio received the stigmata on September 20, 1918 at San Giovanni Rotondo, some who lived in that area remained incredulous, and became his “enemies.” One such man by the name of Michele lived in Torremaggiore, a small municipality about 25 miles to the west of San Giovanni. A clamorous incident occurred around the year 1919 involving Michele and Padre Pio, which was reported at the time in newspapers from eyewitness accounts.
Michele was a confirmed atheist and socialist. He was known as a “mangiapreti,” (literally – a priest-eater), who harbored bitter resentment and hatred towards Catholic priests. An inveterate blasphemer, he considered Padre Pio to be a notorious deceiver.
He was proprietor of a furnace operation for the baking of terracotta clay used in ceramics and pottery. At that time the kiln was fired with bean and barley straw. Near the oven, Michele had two interconnecting rooms where he kept the supply of straw piled up. However, for six straight days a strong gale was blowing throughout the area, such that it prevented him from igniting his oven. Unable to work, he began to blaspheme to no end. Further, since every day a stream of pilgrims and visitors would pass by his workshop on their way to Padre Pio's friary at San Giovanni Rotondo, he cursed him in particular.
One evening, on June 24th, the feast of St. John the Baptist, Michele prayed, “Dear Padre Pio, I will believe in you if you can put an end to this windstorm that keeps me from lighting my oven and from working.” At that moment, a man entered the courtyard of the place, dressed in the garb of a humble sharecropper. He greeted Michele, and asked him if he had an ember with which he could light his pipe. At that, the artisan went into a rage. He railed that he has been cursing and swearing for six days because has not been able to fire his furnace.
The visitor replied that he would light the kiln himself. Michele became even more furious because he thought the man was mocking him. Taking hold of a pitchfork he came towards the stranger. He shouted to him, “Are you poking fun at me? Are you like that (x&@#!) Padre Pio that makes miracles for the simpletons?” But the visitor remained calm and serene, while replying “I am Padre Pio.”
Immediately, a a large and fearful tongue of fire several meters in length issued forth from the oven. A terrified Michele fell to the ground in a faint. Then he heard a voice calling him: “Don't be afraid. Learn to trust in the Lord and stop blaspheming Him!” As he came to, he saw a friar smiling down at him. He recognized Padre Pio, who took him in his arms to carry him away from the burning fire. Then the saint departed, disappearing through a wall around the property.
In the meantime, the fire which had so mysteriously started in the oven continued to rage. The flames, leaping high and wide, reached the two rooms adjacent to the furnace, where the piles of straw were stored – but incredibly the straw was not consumed. Soon, many people ran up, some coming from afar, after seeing the night sky illuminated by the blazing inferno. Michele's friends and neighbors tried to extinguish the flames, but without success. The remarkable fire continued to burn throughout the night, until about eleven in the morning.
Inside the furnace there were many terracotta vases and pots that had been readied to be baked. The usual baking time was about an hour at most, but the fire in that kiln had been going for about a dozen hours straight. Michele was certain that everything in the oven had been destroyed or pulverized. Instead, when he checked it, he saw that all the ceramics were done to perfection, none were burned or cracked, and there was no waste to throw away as usually happened. The people were amazed at this, and cried out that it was a miracle. The crowd extolled Padre Pio, since Michele told them that the monk had saved him from the flames. The straw from the storage rooms that the fire had mysteriously left unharmed, was gathered by them and taken home in bunches as souvenirs and relics. Similarly, they took away all the vases and pots that had been flawlessly baked by the miraculous fire.
Michele was so upset by the entire occurrence that when he returned home, he had to be confined to bed with a very high fever. After he got better, he journeyed to San Giovanni Rotondo to thank Padre Pio. He had now became a fervent defender of the Padre, and finally ceased his blasphemies.
Based on a selection from Renzo Allegri's Padre Pio Il Santo dei Miracoli, pp. 102-104.
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