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Beautiful bones: Chicago area teems with saints’ relics

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

Some of the biggest figures in Christianity have a little-known presence in the Chicago area in the form of religious “relics” – defined as objects “often associated with a saint’s body” or belongings and kept for “historical interest or spiritual devotion.”

There are bones at the Shrine of All Saints in Morton Grove said to belong to St. Peter, one of Jesus’ 12 apostles who tradition has it was crucified upside down and buried in Rome.

Also at the shrine: Tiny strands of hair said to be from St. Mary, Jesus’ mother.

At the Art Institute of Chicago, there’s an old tooth that may be from St. John the Baptist, one of Jesus’ contemporaries who the Bible says was beheaded on the orders of King Herod.

A small piece of a cloak reportedly from St. Anne, St. Mary’s mother, also is there.

Reliquary with tooth that may belong to St. John the Baptist. | Art Institute of Chicago

Reliquary with tooth that may belong to St. John the Baptist. | Art Institute of Chicago

Now, researchers from England’s Oxford University are studying some of these relics and others to gauge their age, origin and “movement” — which could provide evidence on their authenticity.

What initially attracted the Oxford researchers to the north suburban shrine, which they visited recently, were bones attributed to St. Mildred, an English aristocrat and nun who died in the 8th century, and St. Peter – including what may be his left fibula, said the Rev. Dennis O’Neill, founder of the site and pastor of St. Martha’s Parish that’s home to it.

The Oxford team wanted to draw samples but couldn’t without damaging their containers, or “reliquaries,” O’Neill said, so they ended up taking samples from more-accessible bones believed to be from St. Nicholas – a long-ago bishop in what is now Turkey who “evolved” into Santa Claus – and St. Thomas Becket, a 12th century bishop murdered in his cathedral amid turmoil between the Church and England’s King Henry II.

O’Neill said the Oxford folks may take another crack at the St. Peter relics and others down the road.

At the Art Institute, meantime, the same researchers took samples from the saintly tooth and cloak during their recent trip, the museum confirmed.

Carbon testing will be enlisted and the Oxford team “will try to analyze the DNA,” the museum said via email.

“Other samples will be compared to the analysis of our St. John tooth, as the researchers have analyzed a number of St. John relics,” the email added. “We don’t know if they have a database for St. Anne.”

Shrine of All Saints in Morton Grove, home to relics for more than 1,600 saints. | Robert Herguth/Sun-Times

Shrine of All Saints in Morton Grove, home to relics for more than 1,600 saints. | Robert Herguth/Sun-Times

When Oxford launched a new initiative on relic study last year, the school put out a press release in which Tom Higham, one of the researchers in Chicago recently, was quoted as saying: “We want to find out the age and origin of the relics, whether they were from the same individuals, and where they were moved to. We will not be able to say with 100 percent certainty that they belong to a particular individual who is celebrated as a saint. However, through gathering a body of evidence we will be able to say whether or not the remains originate from the same time and place as the attributed saint.”

For instance, the Oxford team already examined bones found in Bulgaria that were said to belong to St. John the Baptist and discovered they indeed “belonged to a male from the Middle East living in the 1st century,” Georges Kazan, another Oxford researcher to visit Chicago, wrote in a piece published by the Oxford Mail last year.

Other relics attributed to St. John the Baptist have been tested and found “too young” to belong to him, according to Oxford.

Higham declined to comment for this article. Kazan could not be reached.

Container with relic attributed to St. Anne, mother of Jesus' mother. | Art Institute of Chicago

Container with relic attributed to St. Anne, mother of Jesus’ mother. | Art Institute of Chicago

The tooth and cloak piece, which is about two inches by three inches, are both held in ornate containers as are many old saint relics. Both are from the same collection, purchased from dealers for the Art Institute in 1931 after being sold by the descendants of a German ruling family.

The Morton Grove shrine includes relics associated with more than 1,600 saints, either given to or purchased by O’Neill. He said the ones he bought all came from dealers, some through eBay, and he used his own money. Many of the relics were from shuttered Catholic churches, where altars often contain remnants of saints.

The shrine, in a multi-purpose room at the now-closed St. Martha School, was formally dedicated in late 2015 but got its start about nine or 10 years ago, O’Neill said.

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

He sees relics serving a number of functions, including fueling curiosity of youngsters, helping the faithful better understand and model holy women and men of the past, and providing a different means of reflection and connection with God.

The Rev. Dennis O'Neill, founder of Shrine of All Saints in Morton Grove. | Robert Herguth/Sun-Times

The Rev. Dennis O’Neill, founder of Shrine of All Saints in Morton Grove. | Robert Herguth/Sun-Times

“It’s a more tangible sense of being immersed in the communion of saints,” O’Neill said. Saints “weren’t like the Seven Dwarfs — they actually lived.”

Throughout time, though, relics were sometimes viewed and treated differently.

Kazan wrote: “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.”

Either way, it wasn’t unusual for multiple relics to come from a single saint, and they often came to rest in churches and other religious sites, including private chapels of the wealthy. They were draws for pilgrims and sometimes the subject of processions. Relics have played a role in Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and some Protestant traditions, as well as certain non-Christian faiths.

St. Nick’s primary resting place is in Bari, Italy, though select remains and other items attributed to him are scattered at religious sites around the world, according to the St. Nicholas Center in Holland, Mich.

While St. Thomas Becket’s burial place was destroyed during the time of King Henry VIII amid the Reformation, a bone fragment believed to be part of his elbow exists and, earlier this year, was brought to England for a brief visit from the church in Hungary where it’s been for centuries, according to British news accounts.

At least some of St. Peter’s remains are believed to be at the Vatican. Contained in a small box, they were held and prayed over by Pope Francis during a mass in 2013.

Items associated with St. Thomas Becket, a 12-century bishop murdered in his cathedral. | Robert Herguth/Sun-Times

Items associated with St. Thomas Becket, a 12-century bishop murdered in his cathedral. | Robert Herguth/Sun-Times

The leg bone in Morton Grove is weathered — though, roughly 2,000 years after Peter’s death, it is remarkably intact, which could indicate it’s a forgery or was mistakenly identified, O’Neill said.

But it’s too early to say; O’Neill said he purchased it and another bone attributed to St. Peter from a Dutch dealer for around $900 – feeding a fascination dating back to O’Neill’s teen years on the South Side when a priest gave him his first relic, “a tiny bit of bone” from St. Dominic Savio.

“To me it’s a tangible connection to history,” O’Neill said.

Also at the shrine are more modern relics, including a piece of clothing that belonged to Edith Stein, a Carmelite nun killed in the Holocaust and later declared a saint.

And there are strands of hair from Mother Teresa, the nun who tended to the poor in Kolkata, previously know as Calcutta, for decades and was canonized earlier this year.

Many All Saints relics came with certification papers or wax seals from long-ago bishops indicating they’re legitimate — but even with those markers, it’s tough to always know, given the “fog of history” and the fact there have been sometimes-convincing fakes out there, O’Neill said.

“The further you go back in history the harder it is to know,” he said, adding he’s hoping to hear results on the Oxford tests before the end of the year.

Peter Manseau, curator of American religious history at the Smithsonian and author of “Rag and Bone: A Journey Among the World’s Holy Dead,” said via email, “It certainly matters to most of those who venerate relics that they are regarded as genuine.”

“However, in terms of assessing the significance of relics as elements of a nearly [2,000-year-old] religious tradition, the question of whether or not they are legitimate or real is secondary, if it matters at all,” Manseau said.

“Most relics regarded as such today have been in use for generations as physical expressions of faith, giving them a power and meaning entirely separate from the concern with their legitimacy. Their legitimacy is found in their use, not only for believers, but for scholars and historians interested in understanding why this ancient practice has continued into the 21st century.”