My father told me this story of his early days in Calcutta, shortly after the end of World War 1 . There was an order of nuns, the Little Sisters of the Poor – forerunners of Mother Theresa – who tried to care for the homeless and destitute in the swarming slums of the city. They would make the rounds of the more prosperous suburbs with an old horse and cart collecting cast-off clothes and unwanted articles which they might be able to sell for a few annas and buy things for the poor.
But one day disaster struck – the old horse died. There was no way they could make their rounds on foot, carrying whatever they had been able to collect. So they began a Novena to St Joseph, their patron. His statue in their compound was loaded with garlands until it was almost invisible, and a stream of prayers went heavenwards.
Eight days passed without response, but on the morning of the ninth day the gate of their compound was pushed gently open and a young horse came through, timidly peering about in bewilderment. A miracle! St Joseph had come through! It was a fine young stallion, and delightedly the nuns led it to their cart, put it between the shafts and set off.
Meanwhile, just along the road from the convent, there was the compound of a rich businessman who was also a keen racehorse owner. Here there was utter consternation. He had recently returned from a visit to the Newmarket sales in England, bringing with him a young thoroughbred stallion to improve the quality of his bloodstock. But it had vanished.
He was absolutely furious. Terrified servants were sent out to scour the city with dire warnings of the consequences of failure, and eventually they noticed a cart driven by a couple of nuns and drawn by a young horse which they thought they recognised.
It was, of course, the missing racehorse and triumphantly they led it back to the compound, having explained the situation to the nuns. The owner was delighted; he found a more suitable horse for the nuns, they carried on with their rounds as before and all ended happily.
But as my father used to say, the real miracle was not so much that St. Joseph had found a horse for the nuns but that a highly-strung, mettlesome young thoroughbred had consented to be taken in hand by some unknown women, put between the shafts of a cart and driven round the crowded streets of what must be one of the noisiest cities on earth.