Windsor·Special Feature

Bones, teeth and hair from saints rest in the archives of the Catholic Diocese of London

The Roman Catholic diocese of London, Ont. holds hundreds of relics containing the physical remains of saints and martyrs.

Relics are given to anyone who is interested

(Stacey Janzer/CBC)

More than 250 relics, including fragments of bone and teeth that once belonged to revered Roman Catholics, rest in a basement in London, Ont.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of London, which stretches from Huron County to Essex County, has organized and catalogued the remains of saints — both major and minor —and stored the collection in a temperature-controlled room for preservation.

Debra Majer, the diocesan archivist, keeps a close eye on the pieces, some of which were transported to Ontario by bishops as far back as the 1700s.

"Relics, you can't buy them and they're not for sale, because they're sacred," she explained. 

Reliquaries and altar stones

Pieces of saints and martyrs, including bones, teeth, clothing or hair are set inside containers called thecas or reliquaries.

A theca is a small metal vessel that holds a fragment. The piece can be seen through a window and each relic has a wax seal, which will match the seal of a cardinal on an accompanying document. A red thread also criss-crosses the back of each relic. If that's been broken, the relic's authenticity has been compromised.

A bishop's seal shows the authenticity of a relic 0:50

In some cases, the years have damaged the documentation, making it difficult to determine which saint or saints a relic is connected to.

"We've got a round circle here with some very pretty detail," Majer, holding up a first-class relic with decorative beading. "Unfortunately, there's the remains of five saints in there, but it's an old one. It's faded. So I'm unable to know who it belongs to."

Relics were traditionally placed in small openings in marble altar stones.

Majer said some stones could be as small as 15 cm by 20 cm, while churches built more than a century ago may have altar stones as up to 30 cm long and 5 cm thick.

Altar stones, like this one from Assumption Church, are made of marble and include a small opening where a relic would be placed. (Stacey Janzer/CBC)

Getting a piece of history

When Majer started her job 15 years ago, the collection was comprised of boxes filled with inch-wide folded papers. She would carefully unfold the tattered documents and relics would just pop out.

"Since we started to suppress parishes within the last 10 years, they've been coming in droves," Majer said.

The archivist wants to get the relics back out into the community. Often parishioners, even non-Catholics, will call to see if they can receive a relic.

The diocese will supply a relic to anyone who asks, but sometimes people can be picky.

Colours, styles and shapes all describe the saint each relic represents. 0:50

"Of course everybody wants somebody with a big name," Majer said. "I guess it's very much typical of the way people are. If a priest or a pastoral minister wants to use a relic for veneration in a parish they want to say I have St. John de Brébeuf here or St. Teresa of the Child Jesus."

The majors and the minors

Relics in the church range from those connected to familiar saints, including St. Francis of Assisi and St. Vincent de Paul to the relatively unknown such as St. Prosperi and St. Clari.

"These saints could be some of the major known saints that most people would recognize — the names of St. Angela Merici, St. Martin de Porres, St. Alphonsus," Majer said. "However ... if you look through these boxes here you'll see a lot of names you don't recognize, in fact there will be more saints names that are unrecognizable than recognizable."

      1 of 0

      The collection includes two large reliquaries — another name for a container that holds relics — which came from the Religious Hospitallers of Saint Joseph from Windsor.

      The first is from 1888 and features a thick, golden frame with red matting. The inside is shaped like a cross and filled with relics with the names of the saints written on small pieces of paper.

      The whole point of having saints and believing what they've done is faith.- Lizz Birchall, archivist assistant 

      The second reliquary is a rectangular golden frame, with panes set to look like a church window.

      Some pieces in the collection, including a relic of St. Joseph, the husband of Mary, take a little more faith to believe in.

      Lizz Birchall, archivist assistant for the diocese, said that particular piece doesn't have any accompanying documents, so proving authenticity is difficult.

      But in that doesn't mean it's not important to the collection.

      "The whole point of having saints and believing what they've done is faith," explained Birchall. "Having authenticity that's fantastic, but it will only go so far."

      There are two relics that Majer will not part with. One is of St. Peter Nolasco, who is a lesser-known saint, but the diocese has documentation from Rome dating back to the 1700s, which provides its authenticity.

      The second irreplaceable relic is a fragment believed to be a piece of the cross Jesus was crucified on, called the True Cross.

      A document from 1782 saying this relic is real, but that might be a bit of a stretch. 0:29

      "We have a document from 1782 supporting this relic, which is a fragment of the True Cross," she explained. "By all accounts and purposes our faith does tell us this is something special, but the reality is this fragment of wood in this relic being the True Cross, is probably a bit of a stretch, but that's not the point."

      Venerating saints 

      Church historian, Father John Comiskey, explained that since the first century, Catholics have revered tombs of martyrs and noteworthy saints. But by the fourth century, Christianity became a legal religion in the Roman Empire, so there were fewer martyrs.

      Creating relics from the bones of saints to remember those who gave their lives for the faith became commonplace.

      "One of the things about relics is that they're not just a reminder, but in many ways it's a tangible connection with the saints of the past and the present," said Comiskey.

      Relics may have more than one saint inside. Sizes of bone can range from small fragments to molars. (Stacey Janzer/CBC)

      As more churches were built, priests would petition the Vatican to receive relics. Those would be turned into altar stones and embedded into the altars, which continued as a common practice until the 1960s.

      Distributing relics became impossible after that, as so many churches opened up worldwide, so the practice was deemed no longer necessary. 

      Burying the past

      The collection at the diocese is in constant flux. Majer said she doesn't have to search for relics, because they continue to just show up at the office. She recalls a rather unpleasant phone call from a man with a large stash of relics.

      "He wanted to sell them to me. I was aghast. I was so angry, because he knows nothing about relics," she said. "Relics are not to be sold. That's just the practice and the canons around relics. We don't sell the remains of sacred people."

      This box holds fragments of bone from St. Laurentia, a martyr. (Stacey Janzer/CBC)

      Sometimes the archivist has to destroy a relic, a process that follows a specific code of canon law. Relics must either be burned, buried or dropped in a deep pool of water. 

      "We want to maintain and respect the sacredness of these relics."

      About the Author

      Stacey Janzer was born and raised in Essex County. Self-described Canadian treasure. She currently works as a video journalist at CBC Windsor. Email her at Stacey.Janzer@cbc.ca.