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Sunday, May 10, 1998
BODIES OF 7 EARLY SAINTS
By Joan Little
Of The Post-Dispatch
First-time visitors simply stop and stare, not quite believing what they see. Tucked away in a corner of a chapel are the skeletons of seven saints and martyrs from the earliest days of Christianity. Three of the saints are Romans whose remains are elaborately clothed; they are displayed in glass and wood coffins.
But they are not at some historical church in Europe. They are here. The saints have been under glass for nearly a century at the motherhouse of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet in south St. Louis.
Experts say it is one of the most rare collections of holy relics in the country. Many other shrines contain only small bone fragments of saints, not the entire remains. "It's so rare to see anything like that anymore," said the Rev. Paul Niemann, a liturgical specialist for the Archdiocese of St. Louis.
St. Anthony's Chapel in Pittsburgh claims to have the largest collection in the United States with 4,000 relics; the Maria Stein Chapel outside Cincinnati says it has about 600. But both of those have only one saint's entire body. The saints may also be one of the best-kept secrets in St. Louis because the chapel is not open to the public. The sisters frequently give tours but only upon request.
St. Aurelia, St. Discolius and St. Nerusia Euticia are the three Roman saints given a full display. The skulls, teeth and separated bones of two other early martyrs, St. Berenice and St. Berisimus, are behind two glass cases on each side of the altar. Behind closed marble doors within the altar are the skulls and bones of two more martyrs, St. Vincent and St. Aurelius. And in five glass niches along the front of the altar are single bones, each of them carefully wrapped in gauze, from 70 other saints.
Aurelia and Discolius were said to be child martyrs originally buried in the Catacombs. St. Nerusia Euticia was a young noblewoman of Rome in the second century, according to documents the sisters obtained from the Vatican. The skeletons of all three are wrapped in gauze, through which the bones can be seen in the hands and feet. They are dressed in blue-and-gold brocade Roman tunics and hair wreaths. They have wax over their faces, which gives them a doll-like appearance.
St. Berisimus is believed to have died at the age of 8 in the Coliseum during the reign of Antoninus Pius. St. Berenice was put to death by the sword. Euticia and Discolius have stone slab tombstones with their names in crudely lettered Latin that are said to have been taken from the Catacombs. The stone slabs hang next to each of their coffins.
How they came here
The story begins in 1861 with the arrival of the body of St. Aurelia. She had been in the private chapel of Pope Pius IX, and she was sent as a gift from the pope to Mother Superior St. John Facemaz. St. Aurelia rests in a glass coffin under the center of the altar. Little is known
about her. According to the motherhouse records, she was a child martyr whose body was taken from the Catacombs during the term of Pope Pius IX in the 1800s. The rest of the collection was brought to St. Louis in 1878 by Mother Superior Agatha Guthrie. Mother Agatha, one of the most dynamic and popular leaders in the order's history, also was keenly interested in the lives of the church's martyrs. When she went to Rome on religious business in the fall of 1877, she met an Italian priest who was a friend of Count Nicholas Savorelli Prati, descended from an old Italian family. The Savorelli family had a chapel in Forli, Italy, which contained a rich treasury of relics taken from the Catacombs and given to the family in the early 1800s by Pope Pius VII. That was a time of anti-Catholic sentiment, especially in France, and Pius VII ordered a number of the martyrs' bodies removed for safe-keeping. In fact, the nuns' documents show that most of the martyrs at Carondelet were taken from the Catacombs on orders of Pope Pius VII in 1802 and 1803. Apparently it took some doing, but the Italian priest, Father Pietro Marchionni, convinced Count Savorelli Prati to give nine entire bodies from the chapel to Mother Agatha. When she returned to St. Louis, Mother Agatha gave a martyr's body to each of the order's provincial houses in Los Angeles, St. Paul, Minn., and Albany, N.Y. She kept the remaining six in St. Louis. With St. Aurelia, they make seven.
Relics and the church
Because there have been many cases of fraud involving relics, people might wonder if the saints at Carondelet are for real. The Sisters of St. Joseph think so, and they have the documents from the Vatican as proof. None of the martyrs' names appear in the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, yet all appear in a 1924 dictionary of saints written by an aide to Pope Pius XI. If they were saints in 1924, they are still saints today, church officials say.
"There's no such thing as someone once being a saint," Niemann said. When the Catholic Church removed a number of saints from its feast day calendar in the 1960s, no saints were decanonized. But the martyrs in the Carondelet chapel are obscure, which may explain why they are still whole. "Typically, what happened years ago was that the more popular the saint, the more everybody wanted a particle of them," Niemann said. "You end up with a scattering of relics all over the place. To have a complete collection of remains, I would say, is pretty rare."
Church officials tend to de-emphasize relics today. Since the reforms of the 1960s, new Catholic churches are no longer required to have a saint's relic in the altar. If a new church chooses to have a relic, it has to be large enough to be a recognizable human bone, Niemann said.
Relics go back to the earliest days of the Catholic Church, when Roman emperors persecuted and killed Christians for practicing their faith. The places where the martyrs died or were buried were regarded as sacred and holy. In the early days, Mass was often celebrated on the martyrs' tombs. But by the Middle Ages, the buying and selling of relics had become a racket.
Many false relics existed then and still do. "The selling of relics was one of the main factors that caused the Reformation," said the Rev. Francis X. Cleary, an associate professor in theology studies at St. Louis University. In Europe, people sought to have themselves buried as close to a church as possible, even right up against the church wall. "The attitude was, when you died, the closer you could get to the relics of the saints, the better off you'd be," Cleary said. "That way they could have a leg up on the Day of Judgment."
The attitude is different today, says Sister Hoyer of the Maria Stein Chapel. "We don't now dig up the body of a holy person and start carving away at the bones and distributing them," she said. "We have a much different appreciation of the human body." Church officials say the keeping and venerating of relics is part of recognizing heroes - not that different from someone wanting to keep a baseball that Mark McGwire hit over the fence. Still, Catholics are aware that non-Catholics may find something strange about keeping the remains of the dead. "It's not something that everybody warms up to," said the Rev. William Barnaby Faherty, a local historian, museum director and author. Thomas J. Serafin, a Californian, started "Saints Alive!" six years ago to re-educate Catholics about the need for venerating and preserving relics. He says he has collected more than 800 relics that he keeps in a vault at his home. He also has a Web page on the Internet and co-founded a group called the International Crusade for Holy Relics. "The whole idea of our group is to bring back veneration to the relics," Serafin said.
Although the Sisters of St. Joseph have a long and distinguished history in North America that started in St. Louis, Sister Charlene Sullivan, the order's archivist, says with some irony that the saints in the chapel are what grabs the attention of visitors. "It's the first thing that people go to when they enter the chapel," Sullivan said. The nuns will answer any question about the martyrs, but they view the collection as part of Catholic history and their order's history. There are no special annual celebrations.
"The relics are lovely, but that's the past, and we're looking to the future," said Sister Paulette Gladis, part of the order's leadership team. "We revere them and want to provide a holy place for them as the bones of holy people, but we also have holy people walking around today."