Relics of the Past and the Present

The skeletal remains of two early Christian martyrs are re-interred in Louisville, after being examined by local archeologists.

SAINT STUDY. Philip DiBlasi, a Catholic staff archeologist at the University of Louisville, volunteered to examine the relics of Sts. Magnus and Bonosa.
SAINT STUDY. Philip DiBlasi, a Catholic staff archeologist at the University of Louisville, volunteered to examine the relics of Sts. Magnus and Bonosa. (photo: Courtesy of St. Martin's)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The feast of All Saints has a special resonance this year for one Catholic parish in this city.

Just a few weeks ago, parishioners and friends of St. Martin of Tours Church in Louisville, Ky., celebrated the re-interment of the skeletal remains of Sts. Magnus and Bonosa with a solemn high Mass in the extraordinary form.

The two saints were martyred in the third or fourth centuries and had been kept in glass sarcophagi in the church’s two wooden side altars since 1902. The relics were removed in May so repair and refurbishment could be done on their reliquaries as well as the 160-year-old altars in which they were encased.

Father Paul Beach, St. Martin’s pastor, was excited about the attention the project generated.

“Relics are important because they give us a tangible connection to real human beings who have given witness to our faith,” he said.

St. Magnus was a centurion, and St. Bonosa was a virgin. They were martyred in the Colosseum — one account has Magnus fighting to save Bonosa’s life — and buried in the catacombs. Their remains were later removed and kept in a convent in Agnani, an ancient town near Rome, but they were returned to Rome after the Italian government forced the convent to close in the 19th century. Pope Leo XIII gave the relics over to the care of St. Martin’s 110 years ago at the request of its pastor at the time, Msgr. Francis Zabler.


Historic Church

Founded in downtown Louisville in 1853 to serve a German immigrant community, St. Martin of Tours is one of the country’s most beautiful, historic and traditional churches. For nearly a century, homilies were preached in German, confessions were heard in German, and many of the memorials in its stained-glass windows are in German.

Interior features include a magnificent marble altar, colorful stained-glass windows and traditional statues.

But what everyone goes away talking about, according to Father Beach, are the saintly skeletal remains. The bones are wrapped in cotton, formed in the shape of human figures, with skulls exposed and the rest covered with robes and palm fronds (to indicate that they’re martyrs).

For more than a century, visitors to St. Martin’s have been inspired by the story of these saints. But during the 1960s, middle-class families fled the crime and congestion of inner-city Louisville, and the parish, along with others in the city, underwent a period of decline. St. Martin’s parish school closed, and parish membership dwindled to 125.

In 1978, an innovative pastor, Father Vernon Robertson, played a central role in reviving the church. He launched a traditional music program that drew many to the parish and started outreach programs to aid the needy. He even opened a restaurant in the rectory, “one of the best in the city,” said Father Beach.

When Father Robertson left, the parish community had grown to 300 families. Today, with renewed growth in the city and the parish’s reputation for beauty and excellent programs, membership is at 750 families. Parishioners come from 40 different zip codes.


Informative Bones

In May, Philip DiBlasi, a staff archeologist at the University of Louisville, who is Catholic, volunteered to study the relics while the reliquaries were refurbished. Assisted by some archeological students, he removed the bones for visual study and cataloguing in one of St. Martin’s separate chapels.

The remains of St. Magnus were not as complete as they had hoped, said DiBlasi, meaning the team might not be able to learn as much about him as they hoped. “When we unwrapped his remains, Magnus’ skeleton was fragmented and incomplete,” he said. “We feared our efforts would be fruitless.”

St. Magnus’ skeleton was about 45% complete, and the skull was missing its mandible (jawbone). Still, they were able to determine that he was a male and 45 to 50 years old. His ethnicity was primarily Caucasian, but they did find indications that he had some Mediterranean/African ancestry.

In contrast, St. Bonosa’s skeleton was 95% complete, only missing a few fingers and toes. She was 100% Caucasian, female, right-handed and approximately 24 years of age. DiBlasi remarked, “We were amazed. She is incredibly well preserved.”

Additionally, they found, the young woman had stress features on her knees, which could be due to work, such as doing laundry, or because she spent much time on her knees in prayer.

Both of the saints' teeth had been worn down from eating stone-ground bread. And they had been interred in an open-air burial, such as in a catacomb or cave.

Jan Marie Hemberger, an archeologist and DiBlasi’s wife, assisted with the project. “When you read reports associated with artifacts, they often do not match what you observe,” she said. “This was not the case with the St. Martin’s relics. We were amazed with the accuracy of what we read and what we observed.”

While most of the remains were kept under lock and key at St. Martin’s, the two skulls were sent to a local hospital for a CAT scan. As funds are raised, the hope is to do facial reconstructions of the saints.

The bones were not carbon dated to determine their age, because DiBlasi believes such a test would produce inaccurate results. Over the centuries, the bones have been exposed to air, residue of candles and incense and other materials that could produce false readings.

As Catholics, both DiBlasi and Hemberger were grateful for the opportunity to study the relics because it helped them learn more about their faith and about Church teaching on relics.

Additionally, it gave them the opportunity to enjoy one of Louisville’s most beautiful and vibrant parishes. As Hemberger said, “I grew up in this town, but I’d never been to St. Martin’s, and I didn’t know these saints’ remains were here. It’s been a rewarding experience.”

The Sept. 9 Mass for the saints began with a procession; re-interment occurred afterward. The relics now wear new robes, sewn by parish volunteers and made to match their previous robes.


The Price of Faith

Father Beach anticipates the relics will remain undisturbed for at least another 110 years and will be a helpful tool in reinvigorating the faith of parishioners and visitors.

“We can talk about the martyrs of the Colosseum, but the relics of St. Magnus and St. Bonosa put you literally face-to-face with Catholics who were there and paid the ultimate price for their faith,” he said. “It’s very powerful.”

Jim Graves writes from Newport Beach, California.