This day is particularly special to the Vicariate’s Cathedral in Philadelphia – St. Nicholas Stavropigia Orthodox Cathedral – as St. Nicholas is its Patron Saint.
As background, Myra was a town in an ancient Greece, now present-day Turkey. In the 11th Century, the Greek Empire was going through a difficult time with ever-growing rifts between Muslims from the Ottoman Empire and Eastern and Western Christians. Religious hostilities led to attempts to break into the tomb of St. Nicholas.
The possible desecration of shrines angered not only Eastern, but also Western Christians. Christians in Italy, among whom there were many Greeks, were especially anxious about the welfare of St. Nicholas’ relics. And so, the inhabitants of the city of Bari, located on the shores of the Adriatic Sea, decided to save the relics of St. Nicholas.
In 1087, merchants and Venetians went to Antioch to trade. They agreed that on their return, they would take the relics of St. Nicholas and transport them to Italy. Upon arrival in Myra, two scouts reported that the city was quiet and that they met only four monks in the church where the tomb of St. Nicholas was located. On that same day, 47 armed people went to the church of St. Nicholas. The monks, not suspecting anything, showed them the platform under which the Saint's tomb was hidden, and where, according to custom, foreigners were anointed with myrrh from the relics of the Saint.
One monk related that on the Eve of St. Nicholas Day, the Saint appeared to an elder monk. In this vision, St. Nicholas ordered that his relics be better safeguarded. This story inspired the Venetian merchants as they saw in this phenomenon the instruction of St. Nicholas to transfer his relics. To facilitate their actions, they revealed their intentions to the monks and offered them a payment of 300 gold coins. The monks refused the money and attempted to warn the townspeople of the foray.
But the Venetian merchants tied them up and destroyed the church platform under which was the tomb with the relics of St. Nicholas. One young man named Matthew was distinguished for his special zeal in wanting to discover the relics of the Saint as soon as possible. In his impatience, he broke the lid and saw that the tomb was filled with holy fragrance. The followers of the Venetian merchants, presbyters Lupp and Drogo, performed a memorial panikhida, after which Matthew began to extract the relics of the Saint from the sarcophagus. This took place on April 20, 1087. Because there was no ark, the presbyter Drogo wrapped the relics in clothing and, accompanied by Barians, carried them to the ship.
The monks from the sanctuary where the relics had been informed the inhabitants of Myra about the seizure by foreigners of the relics of the St. Nicholas the Wonderworker. Crowds of people gathered on the shore but it was too late. On May 8, 1087, the ships arrived in the City of Bari, and soon the good news spread throughout the city. The next day, May 9, the relics of St. Nicholas were solemnly transferred to the Church of St. Stephen, which was not far from the sea. The celebration of the transfer of the shrine was accompanied by numerous miraculous healings of the sick, which inspiredeven greater reverence for the great saint of God. One year later, a church was built in Bari – the Basilica di San Nicola -- in the name of St. Nicholas and consecrated by Pope Urban II.
This historic event -- the recovery and transfer of the relics of St. Nicholas -- caused a special veneration of the Wonderworker and was marked by the establishment of a special holiday on May 9. For Old (Julian) Calendar churches, May 9 falls on May 22 of the New (Gregorian) Calendar.