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Padre Padilla, the Incorruptible: Body of Murdered Friar Remains Perfectly Preserved After Centuries

Padre Padilla, the Incorruptible: Body of Murdered Friar Remains Perfectly Preserved After Centuries

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According to the Roman Catholic tradition, the corpses of certain venerable people never decompose or decay. They are “incorruptible”.  It is believed that certain individuals and objects can escape the ravages of time because of their inherent holiness or because they are under the protection of a divine power. (A similar tradition exists in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, a good example of which can be seen in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.) Incorruptibility is an important attribute of saintliness and only counts if it occurs naturally – in other words, mummification or embalming does not qualify. Moreover, incorruptible corpses do not reek of death but instead are said to produce a pleasant, floral scent. One of the few American examples of an incorruptible corpse is that of Padre Padilla in the Isleta Pueblo of New Mexico.

Body of Saint Pio da Pietrelcina, who is said to be an example of incorruptibility

Body of Saint Pio da Pietrelcina, who is said to be an example of incorruptibility (CC 2.0 / Vito Manzari)

Pueblo of Isleta is a Native American community of Tanoan-speaking natives living in Bernalillo County, New Mexico. It is believed to have been first established in the 14 th century by a group of Southern Tiwa people. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. One of the highlights for tourists visiting the area is the Mission Church of Isleta Pueblo. Built in 1613, it is one of the oldest surviving missions in the United States. Its fame was greatly increased because it was the mission of Fray Juan Jose de Padilla, known affectionately as Padre Padilla.

Pueblo de Isleta, New Mexico, 1898

Pueblo de Isleta, New Mexico, 1898 (public domain)

In 1756, the missionary Padilla was violently attacked and stabbed to death by unknown assailants. He was then buried beneath the floor of the Church, near the high altar. For 19 years, Padre Padilla lay dormant. Then, according to local accounts, during a Mass 19 years later in 1775, churchgoers witnessed with horror as the floor near the altar began to rattle and shake for no apparent reason. Strange noises came up from the ground. The earthen floor broke open and suddenly, Padre Padilla emerged from the ground. If this was not shocking enough for the community and clergy, the Padre was not a skeleton but a perfectly preserved body. Witness testimony claims that the skin felt supple and warm to the touch. Even the clothing was well maintained.

No one could understand how the body had been so well preserved or why it had reemerged in that moment. The locals decided the missionary was probably angry about the shoddy burial treatment he had received. So the clergy dressed the Padre in the proper vestments of a Franciscan friar and reburied Padilla with all the ceremony and honor of a Franciscan burial. They thought this would satisfy the soul of the departed. However, it did not.

Adobe and sod house at Isleta Pueblo

Adobe and sod house at Isleta Pueblo (public domain)

In 1819, Padre Padilla once again burst out of his coffin and up through the floor of the church. 44 years had passed and yet, the friar still looked as fresh as the day he died. Indeed, the man did not look dead at all, only sleeping. Witnesses say he smelled like fresh, moist soil. Realizing that burying the Padre was not a solution, the Isleta Pueblo decided to keep the body above ground in a display case for all the public to come and see. 

By this time, news had reached the Church authorities and a team of experts was sent to examine the corpse. They found no evidence of man-made preservation – no signs of mummification or embalming- or any sign or scent of death. After close scrutiny, the corpse of Padre Padilla was declared incorruptible. Furthermore, the raising of the body from the ground was declared a miracle. As such, the Pueblo of Isleta has become a site of pilgrimage. Rumor had it that that the very clothing worn by the Padre had miraculous healing powers. There are widespread reports of ghost sightings in the Pueblo, believed to be that of Padre Padilla roaming the church grounds. The body was reburied shortly after the Church declared him incorruptible.

The mission church at Pueblo de Isleta where Padre Padilla was buried

The mission church at Pueblo de Isleta where Padre Padilla was buried (public domain)

According to legends, the body periodically knocked on the floorboards but mostly remained quiet for 76 years until he was purposefully exhumed in 1890 by a French Franciscan named Anton Docher. Accounts say that Docher was ripping up the floorboards, when he sustained a deep cut on his arm. It quickly became infected with gangrene and doctors said it would have to be amputated. Understanding he was being punished for disturbing Padre Padilla, Docher prayed fervently to the Franciscan friar. His arm was then miraculously and mysteriously healed. Docher would stay on at the mission until his death in 1928.

Many eagerly wait for the moment when the corpse will rise again. Unfortunately, in 1960, the church floor was paved over with cement. The floor has not been seen to shake or heard to knock since then. It remains a matter of persistent debate whether the Padre is now resting peacefully or still banging away on the tons of concrete above his head, trying to emerge from his resting place once again.

Top image: The incorruptible body of Padre Pio of Pietrelcina (thecatholictravelguide)

By Kerry Sullivan


Atlas Obscura. "Pueblo of Isleta."  Atlas Obscura. Atlas Obscura, 2016. Web.

Haunted Universe. "Incorruptible Corpses."  Haunted Universe. Haunted Universe, 2016. Web.

Swancer, Brent. "The Incorruptible Corpse of Isleta Pueblo."  Mysterious Universe. Mysterious Universe, 17 July 2014. Web.



Fun story with no actual evidence. Incourruptables are anything but. They are the result of very good embalming of natural mummification combined with cosmetic artistry. Padre Pio (depicted above) for instance, has a silicone face and hands to hide the fact that his body has in fact decayed. This replaces the wax sculpture faces he has worn in the past. This goes for others as well.

Displayed 1820? Where did the picture come from?

So what do we think is really going on? I’m not interesdted in ghosts and saints and silly stories. There is either a real scientif explanation (or at least some guesswork), or it’s a trick. Which is it?

Kerry Sullivan's picture

Kerry Sullivan

Kerry Sullivan has a Bachelor of Science and Bachelor of Arts and is currently a freelance writer, completing assignments on historical, religious, and political topics.

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