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Archives Relics: Where heaven and earth touch

April 3, 2024

By Keith Benman
Contributing Writer

They are about place, person and authenticity. They have worked their way into popular culture through numerous works of fantasy but are now getting a more serious look in the Netflix docuseries “Mysteries of the Faith.”

They’re called relics. And the Netflix series sheds light on both the history and healing powers of some of the world’s most well-known.

Those include ancient ones like Jesus’s crown of thorns, at Notre Dame, in Paris; a piece of the true cross in Brazil; and even the bloody shirt of the beatified Sicilian jurist Rosario Livatino, who was assassinated by the Mafia in 1990.

But all the attention on relics famous worldwide can obscure the fact that relics are everywhere, and that includes the diocese of Ogdensburg.

“It’s a great reminder that the saints were real people when you’re able to have physical contact with them or the things they possessed,” said Father Joseph Giroux on a recent afternoon at the rectory at St. Patrick’s Colton, where he’s pastor.

His veneration for relics led him to buy new reliquaries, basically ornate containers, for two relics he found at St. Mary’s Potsdam, where he is also the pastor.

Both contain bone fragments, one reputedly from the body of St. Francis of Assisi and one from St. John Neumann, a 19th century archbishop of Philadelphia who was canonized in 1977. They are placed on the altar at St. Mary’s on All Saints Day and the feast of each respective saint.

“We can’t all go on pilgrimage, but we still want to be close to the saints,” Father Giroux said.

He also has a small collection of relics of his own focused on modern-day saints. That includes a small piece of cloth that once belonged to St. Katherine Drexel, a Philadelphia heiress who founded an order ministering to the oppressed. And he has one from someone on his way to sainthood. It’s a piece of cloth that once belonged to Pier Giorgio Frassati, who died in 1925, was beatified in 1990, and is considered as the global patron for youth.

Father Giroux gave a short presentation on those relics last autumn at the Friday evening gathering of St. Mary’s campus ministry at the Newman Club. Clarkson junior Lucas Roberts-Williams was among the students there.

Not long after that, Roberts-Williams was able to obtain a relic of his own when a friend gave him a scapular. The friend had made it a relic by touching it to the glass case containing a relic of St. Jude the Apostle, often called the patron of hopeless causes. The relic was a bone from the saint’s arm encased in a carved wooden arm that made a stop in the diocese of Paterson, New Jersey, in December on its first tour ever outside of Italy.

“It helps remind you that you are in the presence of God and the company of the saints,” Roberts-Williams said. “It’s just a tangible reminder of that spiritual truth.”

Roberts-Williams said he was first introduced to relics at a retreat he made as a college freshman and has been learning more about them ever since.

“The way we as Catholics value the body, it makes sense we’d venerate the saints in the body,” he said.

Some of the most significant relics in the diocese of Ogdensburg are those of St. André Bessette, the brother of the Holy Cross who founded St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal and is credited with numerous healings in his lifetime and after.

That’s not surprising considering St. Joseph’s Oratory is close by.

But it’s also because Brother André often visited and attended Mass in the North Country, including in Malone, where he had relatives.

He was made the patron saint of the merged Malone parishes in 2014, just four years after his canonization. At that time, St. Joseph’s Oratory presented the parish with a first-class relic of brother André, a piece of cloth soaked in his blood.

There is also a table at which Brother André prayed with a local Malone family that was donated to St. John’s church, in Plattsburgh.

In an age where narrative and image are so important, particularly in social media, there is a desire to be in the presence of something authentic, Father Giroux said.

Relics of the saints offer Catholics that chance.

“More than a photo or story or even a statue, it helps to get people in touch with them as a human being,” he said.

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