Venerating them dates back to the beginning of Christianity and is confirmed in Scripture.
The bones of Elisha raised a dead man to life in 2 Kings 13:21, and in Acts 19:12, people were healed through handkerchiefs and cloths that had been touched to St. Paul. Catholics understand that all power comes through God, but we believe he can work through the saints, our “models and intercessors” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 828).
Pastors at shrines with the two largest collections of relics in the United States and another just building up a collection spoke with the Register about the power of relics to bring us closer to God.
When visiting the Shrine of All Saints in Morton Grove, Illinois, which features more than 2,600 relics, people have an immersion experience, according to Father Dennis O’Neill, the pastor for 19 years of St. Martha of Bethany Church in Morton Grove. When the parish school closed, the gymnasium was renovated as a shrine for the relics. “People are usually overwhelmed,” he said. “That is the idea: The saints are overwhelming. The relics offer an opportunity for people unable to go on a pilgrimage to Europe to still visit the saints.”
Father O’Neill’s love of relics began around the age of 12 as an altar boy when he received a relic of St. Dominic Savio. He has since spent decades collecting relics from closed churches, monasteries and private collections in the Archdiocese of Chicago and in Europe. Some he found for sale on the internet. “It’s a sin to buy and sell relics but a virtue to rescue them,” he said.
Notable among the many relics is a lock of St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s hair that gives off the scent of roses even though she died in 1897. “All I have to do is lift the dome from the container, and everyone can smell it,” Father O’Neill said. “Some of the other relics give off a scent, too.” Recently, scientists from Oxford University came to visit and carbon-date a piece of St. Nicholas’ pelvis to A.D. 340 and a relic of St. Edith to the year 700.
Steady traffic from around the world includes individuals, tour buses and classes of confirmation students. Father O’Neill said he especially enjoys talking with students. “It gives them a feeling that the saints were real people,” he said. “I explain to them that nothing is being worshipped here. It is like pictures in family albums. They are our family. God gave us each other to help take care of one another.”
St. Anthony’s Chapel
St. Anthony Chapel in Pittsburgh holds more than 5,000 relics — the largest collection outside of the Vatican. They were originally the personal property of Godfrey Mollinger (1828-1892), a Belgian-born noble/physician who discerned a call to the priesthood while practicing medicine in his 20s. He left Europe to serve as a missionary in the United States and settled in Pittsburgh.
Due to his family’s wealth, Father Mollinger was able to rescue a large number of relics that were suddenly and unfortunately on the open market during the mid-to-late 1800s. He built the chapel to house them and had it dedicated on June 13, the feast day of St. Anthony of Padua.
“There is an overwhelming sanctity of the place that is hard to understand until you’ve actually experienced it,” according to Father James Orr, co-director of St. Anthony Chapel and pastor of Most Holy Name of Jesus. He estimates that there are around 35,000 visitors annually, with Lent being the busiest time for pilgrims.
The count of 5,000 relics was made in 1892, and many more have been added since then.
There is a plan to do a full inventory soon.
“We never put a relic on display without a letter of authenticity,” he said.
Noteworthy among the relics is a piece of the Blessed Mother’s clothing. Records show that Pope St. Sylvester had it brought from the Middle East to Rome. The chapel also has a collection of 13 roses surrounding a relic of the True Cross. The roses contain relics of the Twelve Apostles — with Mathias as the replacement of Judas — and St. Paul.
An encounter with the saints leads people closer to God, according to Father Orr. And sometimes it also leads to alleged miracles.
“We used to have quite a collection of crutches,” he said. “One of my predecessors got rid of some, but we still have a lot of them.”
Recently, a man showed Father Orr a picture of his legs grotesquely covered in ulcers.
“He told me that doctors were talking about amputation,” Father Orr said. “He said that St. Anthony had healed him — there was no other explanation.”
The man wore shorts, revealing legs that were completely normal. He had come to the chapel to pray the Tuesday night novena to St. Anthony.
“It’s a privilege to see so many people living out their faith in relationship to the saints,” Father Orr said. “When I hear confessions in the chapel, I see so much faith. It is unbelievably beautiful to witness.”
Father Joseph Marquis has collected 100 relics for the All Saints Shrine over the last two years. They are displayed at Sacred Heart Byzantine Catholic Church in Livonia, Michigan. A late-vocation married priest (allowed in the Byzantine Rite), he was ordained 14 years ago, after 20 years as a deacon. Father Marquis’ devotion to the saints began with St. Nicholas at Christmastime when he was 5 years old. His mother was in the hospital with twins during a high-risk pregnancy.
His father was also away, in the Northville Sanatorium, suffering with tuberculosis. Father Marquis and his brother Richard prayed desperately to St. Nicholas. Their mother and the twins returned home healthy, as did their father.
St. Nicholas has been his beloved patron ever since. Father Marquis often dresses up as St. Nicholas, including for 14 years in the Detroit Thanksgiving Day Parade. He also founded The St. Nicholas Institute to promote the ideals of St. Nicholas. It’s no surprise then, that St. Nicholas was the first relic he obtained — in December, of course.
He began building from there. “Hearing about a poll reporting that young people don’t have heroes anymore made me want to inspire them with heroes of the early Church that literally put their lives on the line for Christ,” Father Marquis explained. According to him, gathering relics for veneration is a form of evangelization. “Most people don’t know who Polycarp is or St. Ignatius of Antioch. They often don’t know about the saints at all.”
Although he has relics from more recent saints, most are from early Church saints and martyrs, such as St. Polycarp, who was ordained by St. John the Apostle; Joseph of Arimathea, who took Jesus from the cross, wrapped him in a burial cloth and laid him in the tomb; the relic is his right index finger; and St. John the Baptist, a bone from a foot. There is a full list at the parish’s website, SHByzantine.com/allsaintsshrine.html.
Father Marquis said, “I’d like for this shrine to be a legacy, to foster a greater love, familiarity from the lives and examples of these elder sisters and brothers of our faith.”
Patti Armstrong writes from North Dakota.
3 Classes of Relics
There are three classes of relics: first class, a part of the saint’s body, usually a bone or hair; second class, a piece of clothing; and third class, an object touched to a first- or second-class relic.