The arm of St. Francis will join many saintly bits and pieces already in Calgary

There are fragments of saints spread all across Calgary, tucked away in Catholic altars, but the diocese isn't entirely sure who's here and where their bits might be.

While the city has nothing as significant as the arm, there are shavings embedded in many Catholic altars

The arm of St. Francis will join shavings from many saints housed in Calgary altars and cloths, like those of St. George. (Left: Julian Smith/EPA Right: Cristino Bouvette)

The severed right forearm and hand of St. Francis Xavier is in Calgary as part of a cross-Canada tour, a more significant and bulky relic than the many bits that already call the city home. 

There are little pieces of saints spread all across Calgary, tucked away in Catholic altars, but the diocese doesn't have a full record of who's here and where their bits might be. 

Archived entries written by Bishop John T. Kidd in the Acta Diocesana, which marks significant events in the diocese that stretches across southern Alberta, show St. Victor and St. Aurelia are well represented. 

In 1925, 31 altar stones were consecrated with relics from those two saints, and in 1929, another 55 altar stones were consecrated with the same saints. There are approximately 80 churches in the diocese today.

The relics, as they're called, are tiny shavings from things like the bones and flesh of saints, or the wood from a cross said to have held Jesus. 

Lower level relics that would not be placed in an altar can include clothing from a saint, or items that the saint came into contact with.

The early days

Placing these items in altars is a practice that dates back to the earliest days of Christianity, when it was outlawed in the Roman empire, so believers hid in catacombs to perform mass. 

"While they were doing this, over time there were many martyrs — so those Christians who were apprehended and then executed for their faith — and they would naturally be buried in these catacombs," said Rev. Cristino Bouvette, the director of vocations for the Calgary diocese.  

That meant the Christians were celebrating mass over the bones of the martyrs, and the custom took hold. 

It wasn't until the fourth century that believers emerged from their subterranean places of worship. 

"So the relics of saints began to be collected in smaller versions so as to preserve that physical experience of praying and worshipping God near to this physical reminder to us of those saints who have gone to be with him ahead of us," said Bouvette. 

Modern times

These days, those tiny shavings of bone or bits of flesh — about the size of a head of a pin, according to Bouvette — are hidden inside altars, taking the place of skeletons interred in catacombs.

The larger relics from which the shavings come are housed at the Vatican in Rome — in an office called the Congregation for the Causes of Saints — where the fragments are removed and shipped to local diocese across the world, although Bouvette says having a relic in an altar is not a requirement in today's day and age. 

Although the diocese doesn't have a solid record of who and what is contained in which altar, Bouvette knows there's some of St. Bonaventure in the southeast church that bears his name, thanks to a more recent rededication.

Another example he lists is a bone fragment from St. Charles Borromeo located in St. Bernard's church in northwest Calgary.

Portable relics

There is a record, however, of the relics embedded in cloth for portable masses, a project Bouvette worked on recently.

Among the 34 items on that list is the purported fragment of wood from Christ's cross, some bone from St. James the Apostle, some clothing of St. Charles Borromeo and a bit of flesh that may have belonged to Pius X, although that one's not confirmed to be from the former pope.

"It's not as typical in the Roman Catholic tradition, but we saw it as a way of better utilizing some of the relics that we had in our headquarters downtown, which were just sort of sitting in a box on a shelf and really not being utilized to the best of their abilities," said Bouvette.

He says the visit by the arm of St. Francis — one of the first Jesuits, who spent his career trying to find converts in India and Asia — is a significant event for Catholics in the city and is sure to garner as much attention as it has received at its earlier stops in Eastern Canada.

Bouvette anticipates thousands will show up to be near the relic when it stops at St. Albert the Great's Church on Jan. 21, and at the St. Michael's Church on Jan. 22.

About the Author

Drew Anderson

Drew Anderson is a web journalist at CBC Calgary. Like almost every journalist working today, he's won a few awards. He's also a third-generation Calgarian. You can follow him on Twitter @drewpanderson.