The box carried the relics?bone fragments?of Marie Françoise Therese Martin, known to Catholics as St. Therese of Lisieux. St. Therese is the Ralph Ellison of the church. A cloistered nun who died of tuberculosis in 1897, at the age of 24, her reputation rests on a single work, a soaring spiritual autobiography titled The Story of a Soul, which was published after her death and that movingly evoked her exemplarily pious life. The Little Flower, as she is known?she is the patroness of florists, among other things?is immensely popular. Her example proves, wrote one author, "that sainthood is attainable by anybody."
The service began and there was a lot of talk from the pulpit about the saint's sterling example. But the crowds who jammed both the church and an auditorium across the street (where a live broadcast of the event was shown on five televisions) weren't too interested in priestly musings. They were interested in magical bones.
"I heard about it on the news," said Juana Rodriguez, a voluble 50ish woman from the Dominican Republic who watched the service on tv from across the street. She arrived with two of her neighbors, Julia Cruz and Doris Perez, from the projects on North Elliot Pl. "We talk about it in the neighborhood and that's why we are here," she said.
When she glimpsed the reliquary?the box in which relics are stored?in front of the altar, Rodriguez couldn't hide her disappointment. All there were were the dry shards of bone, but she wanted to see some actual holy flesh. "You don't see the body?" she asked with a moan.
Relics, the bodily remains of saints or else objects used by saints during their lives, have been revered as repositories of heavenly powers since the earliest days of Christianity. As ghoulish as it might seem, the veneration of musty bones, glass-encased hearts, shrunken heads, droplets of blood, locks of hair?anything that once belonged to a holy body?remains popular among the faithful. People still flock to worship St. Anthony of Padua's tongue, for example, which is on display in the basilica bearing his name in his Italian home city.
But it isn't like the old days. In the Middle Ages, relics were hot commodities that brought prestige and wealth to churches, and a thriving black market supplied the goods. The most famous relic-dealer was a ninth century man named Deusdona. He was a smooth operator who dealt directly with the most powerful church leaders, and who once convinced Pope Eugene II to hand over to him the corpse of St. Sebastian, which he subsequently sold to a church in France. Counterfeit relics circulated throughout Europe. Ten churches once claimed to possess the head of St. John the Baptist. Two displayed what they claimed was the body of St. Luke.
Relic-lovers all have their favorite stories. Who could forget the one about the toe of St. Francis Xavier? As was the case with some lucky saints, this missionary's body apparently didn't decay after his death in 1522, and every so often?even now?it's displayed in the basilica in Goa, India. On one occasion a devout Portuguese noblewoman was praying before the exposed body when she moved close and bit the little toe off the saint's right foot. The long-dead body started to bleed. The woman, horrified as she emerged from her rapture, immediately repented and offered the toe to church officials. It is still kept in a reliquary in the basilica.
It's tough to top, though, the story of the holy foreskin (or foreskins) of Christ. At least eight churches claimed to possess this priceless relic, the holy emanations of which were said to protect women during childbirth. In 1422, Henry V of England persuaded the church in Coulombs, France, to lend him Christ's foreskin. The king believed it aided the safe delivery of his son, the future King Henry VI. Another holy foreskin, this one kept in a church in Calcata, Italy, and revered by the locals as carne vera santa (real holy flesh), so embarrassed the Vatican that it threatened excommunication to anyone who spoke of the thing. The foreskin was nonetheless an object of veneration up until 1983, when wily thieves stole it one dark night. The townsfolk believed that agents of the Vatican committed the crime.
The relics of St. Therese aren't quite as illustrious as some of the ones discussed above, although some interesting ones were left back in France. Locks of her hair and a statue of the Virgin Mary that is said to have smiled at her are displayed at the monastery in Lisieux. Still, enthusiastic crowds have thronged to see the traveling bones, which began touring the world in 1995 and won't end their jaunt until 2001.
A gasp filled the Brooklyn auditorium last week when a priest announced that the veneration would be halted. Rodriguez and her neighbors shook their heads and started walking to the exit. They weren't too bothered. A much better relic, they said, was housed at the Mother Cabrini Shrine in upper Manhattan. The body of Cabrini, who founded an order of nuns and died in 1917, is preserved for display in the back of the church.
"It's beautiful," Rodriguez said. "If you go really close you can see the veins in her hands. When I saw that I said, 'Oh, my God, it's a miracle.'"