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Sacred Bones

By Melanie Zebrowski and Stephanie Shreffler

Did you know that the Marian Library and the U.S. Catholic Special Collection have over 200 relics of saints? These items range from small pieces of cloth all the way to large fragments of bone.

A relic is a remnant of a saint, venerated by Catholics as a way to bring one closer to God through a holy person’s intercession. In most cases, these relics are a part of the saint's body or pieces of possessions they owned in their lifetime. The term ‘relic’ comes from the Latin word relinquo meaning to leave behind or relinquish. Although deceased saints have left behind their bodies, it is believed that their physical remains and the objects attributed to them are in some ways still imbued with the holiness and grace that was present during their lifetimes.

That being said, the Catholic Church categorizes relics into three different classes based on their connection to these holy persons. First-Class Relics are items directly associated with the events of Christ or any physical remains of a saint (bones, hair, etc.) Second-Class Relics consist of items that a saint owned or frequently used, such as clothing, books, and religious items. Finally, Third-Class Relics are any object that is touched to a first- or second- class relic. Canon Law states that the selling or disposing of sacred relics is strictly forbidden. Luckily, the library has acquired these items through generous donations from religious orders across the US and plans to keep them for the foreseeable future. 

Most relics of all classes are housed within metal cases known as reliquaries. These containers can be quite ornate because the items enshrined within are considered so valuable. Many of our relics are also accompanied by authentication documents which have been signed and sealed by the priest or bishop who issued them. A matching seal can also be found on the inside-back of the corresponding reliquary. 

List of well-known saintly relics in our collection:
3 relics containing pieces of Mary’s veil
St. Joseph
St. Anne (Mother of the Virgin Mary)
St. Catherine of Siena
St. Francis of Assisi
St. Simon (Apostle)
St. Vincent DePaul
St. Thomas Aquinas
St. Mary Magdalene

One relic in particular, a supposed bone from Mary Magdalene, is quite a sight to behold. Sealed within a glass vial and surrounded by an aura of mystery it is probably the last thing one expects to encounter in a library. In fact, this item is so intriguing that we plan on researching more of its history and sharing what we discover in a future installment. Stay tuned!

Want to see the full list of saints in our relic collection? Check out this finding aid to discover more.

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