Piece of the real Santa in Morton Grove? Could be St. Nick, tests show

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This pelvis fragment obtained by the Rev. Dennis O’Neill of Shrine of All Saints in Morton Grove could be a relic of St. Nicholas, Oxford University researchers found. | Tom Higham and Georges Kazan / Oxford University

Santa Claus is coming to town? It turns out that his ancient inspiration — St. Nicholas — might already be here, in Morton Grove, based on new findings from researchers at Oxford University.

The north suburb’s Shrine of All Saints includes thousands of saintly “relics” — bits of bone and locks of hair, as well as objects once owned or used by religious figures, such as clothing — on display for the curious and the faithful.

Several bone fragments said to have come from Jolly Old St. Nick himself are among the relics, which were collected over decades by the Rev. Dennis O’Neill, rector of the shrine and pastor of its home church, St. Martha Parish.

Oxford researchers visited the shrine last year. With O’Neill’s permission, they took tiny samples from items including a chunk of pelvis thought to possibly be from St. Nicholas — a Greek bishop from the third and fourth centuries in an area known as Myra, now part of Turkey — to test, hoping to determine whether they might be genuine.

Tom Higham, who with Georges Kazan directs the Oxford Relics Cluster at Keble College’s Advanced Studies Centre. | Oxford University

Tom Higham, who with Georges Kazan directs the Oxford Relics Cluster at Keble College’s Advanced Studies Centre. | Oxford University

Now — the week of the St. Nicholas feast day — the researchers in England have released their findings that radiocarbon dating of the piece of pelvis suggests O’Neill could indeed have a little bit of St. Nick.

“The radiocarbon dating results pinpoint the relic’s age to the fourth century AD — the time that some historians allege that St. Nicholas died,” around 343 AD, according to the researchers. “The results suggest that the bones could, in principle, be authentic and belong to the saint.”

Tom Higham, an Oxford researcher, said in a written statement: “Many relics that we study turn out to date to a period somewhat later than the historic attestation would suggest. This bone fragment, in contrast, suggests that we could possibly be looking at remains from St. Nicholas himself.”

O’Neill, who’s been collecting religious relics since he was a teenager on the South Side, said, “It’s very likely him . . . Pretty exciting.”

“Pretty exciting,” says the Rev. Dennis O’Neill, founder of the Shrine of All Saints in Morton Grove, who obtained the St. Nicholas relic. | Robert Herguth / Sun-Times

“Pretty exciting,” says the Rev. Dennis O’Neill, founder of the Shrine of All Saints in Morton Grove, who obtained the St. Nicholas relic. | Robert Herguth / Sun-Times

As is the story of how St. Nick’s bones ended up dispersed in the first place. In the centuries after he died, his “tomb in Myra became a popular place of pilgrimage,” according to the St. Nicholas Center in Holland, Mich. “Because of the many wars and attacks in the region, some Christians were concerned that access to the tomb might become difficult.

“For both the religious and commercial advantages of a major pilgrimage site, the Italian cities of Venice and Bari vied to get the Nicholas relics. In the spring of 1087, sailors from Bari succeeded in spiriting away the bones, bringing them to Bari, a seaport on the southeast coast of Italy.

“An impressive church was built over St. Nicholas’ crypt, and many faithful journeyed to honor the saint who had rescued children, prisoners, sailors, famine victims, and many others through his compassion, generosity and the countless miracles attributed to his intercession.”

Venetians ended up with some pieces of bone left at the original gravesite. And some relics eventually made their way to France, where they were hidden during the French Revolution as religious sites were pillaged and destroyed, according to O’Neill, who wrote a book on the items he’s collected.

O’Neill said his St. Nicholas bones came from France. He said he bought them a decade or so ago from a collector who said “they came from a convent in southern France.”

It can be a “sin” to sell relics, according to O’Neill, but it “can be a virtue to rescue them.”

Which he does with his own money. Some also have been given to him.

The Oxford tests are the first on bones believed to be from St. Nicholas, according to the university.

“Interestingly, the Bari collection does not include the saint’s full pelvis, only the left ilium (from the upper part of the bone),” according to Oxford.

Since O’Neill’s St. Nicholas “relic is from the left pubis (the lower part of the bone), this suggests that both bone fragments could be from the same person.”

Georges Kazan, another Oxford researcher, said in an interview the hope now is to test the Bari and Venice bones, match them against the one from Morton Grove and see whether they all came from the same person.

Kazan said it’s exciting to think such relics could be “genuine.”

According to Oxford, “The relics held in Venice consist of as many as 500 bone fragments, which an anatomical study concluded were complementary to the Bari collection, suggesting that both sets of relics could originate from the same individual. It remains to be confirmed what fragments of the pelvis are contained amongst the Venice relics, if any.”

There are items associated with nearly 1,800 Christian saints at the Morton Grove shrine, including bones said to have belonged to Jesus’ apostle St. Peter, which the Oxford team wants to test at some point.

Relics, though, have a controversial history. Kazan has written: “Many Christians saw relics as earthly repositories of God’s Holy Spirit, able to work miracles and bestow healing. They became invaluable commodities and symbols of status, particularly during the Middle Ages. After the Reformation, the trade in relics was seen as the embodiment of the worst excesses of superstition and cynicism.”

O’Neill said relics still hold purpose, including helping people better understand and model holy people of the past, and providing a different way of connecting to God.

In some ways, “They’re making a comeback,” O’Neill said. “There’s growing interest in them.”

O’Neill knows that some of his relics might not be authentic, either misidentified over the years or forged. But if they bring people closer to God, he said, they still have worth.

Over the years, relics have played a role in Eastern Orthodox, Catholic and even some Protestant traditions, as well as non-Christian faiths.

Strands of hair from Mother Teresa at Shrine of All Saints. | Robert Herguth / Sun-Times

Strands of hair from Mother Teresa at Shrine of All Saints. | Robert Herguth / Sun-Times

St. Nicholas was known for his generosity and care of children, though he didn’t fully “evolve” into Santa Claus until more than 1,000 years after his death.

Among the stories told about him, according to the St. Nicholas Center, there was a “poor man with three daughters” but no dowry — money to give to suitors. With little chance they’d be married, they were “destined to be sold into slavery.“Mysteriously, on three different occasions, a bag of gold appeared in their home providing the needed dowries. The bags of gold, tossed through an open window” by St. Nicholas, “are said to have landed in stockings or shoes left before the fire to dry.”

That was “the beginning of the link between him and Santa Claus,” O’Neill said.

Among the more contemporary relics at O’Neill’s shrine: a piece of clothing that once belonged to Edith Stein, a nun killed in the Holocaust, and strands of hair from Mother Teresa, the nun who tended to the poor in India and was recognized in 2016 as a saint.

A leg bone that has been attributed to St. Peter, one of the 12 apostles. | Robert Herguth / Sun-Times

A leg bone that has been attributed to St. Peter, one of the 12 apostles. | Robert Herguth / Sun-Times

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