Left, Matt Hess gives a tour of the Relic Chapel; middle and right, relics of St. Peregrine, St. Concordia and others.
“Enter devoutly, O Pilgrim, for no place is holier than this on the new continent.”
Visitors to the Relic Chapel at the Maria Stein Shrine have been greeted by this inscription over the door since the chapel was dedicated by Archbishop William Henry Elder in 1892. But the treasure trove of saints’ relics graced the Maria Stein Shrine for decades even before the Chapel was built.
In 1846, Father Francis de Sales Brunner brought a collection of relics to Maria Stein, where they were kept in the original convent. Thirty years later, Father J.M. Gartner brought relics to the United States for safekeeping from Europe, where churches and relics were being vandalized and desecrated. Initially, the relics were to be distributed to parishes around the country; when Father Gartner heard about the relics in the care of the Precious Blood Sisters of Maria Stein, he brought them here instead. Over 140 years later, that is where they remain.
It is among the largest collections of relics in the United States, with over 1,100 relics representing nearly 850 saints.
“Sometimes people ask, ‘Why do we keep all these bones?’ It’s so that we can remember these heroic lives, these people that lived the Gospel values, lived the Eucharist,” said Matt Hess, hospitality and ministries coordinator at the Shrine. “As the early church grew, dedicated places for worship were built. It was desired to build the altar over the tombs of the martyrs, because they gave the ultimate sacrifice, just like the sacrifice of Christ that’s being celebrated on that altar. And so we’re called to enter into that, too. Enter into that cycle of death and rebirth that comes with Eucharist, that comes with dying to self and rising in Christ’s glory.”
Sister Regina Albers said the “constant flow of people coming in to pray with the relics is very uplifting. People respect the relics. You can feel their faith when they are praying with the saints.” Sister Regina served as curator of the Relic Chapel for 10 years and continues to volunteer at the Shrine. She said she enjoys interacting with children when she gives tours of the Chapel, telling them that praying to the saints is like asking a sibling to speak to a parent on their behalf. “We’re asking somebody that’s close to Jesus to intercede for us — and miracles do happen,” she said.
Hess also gives tours of the Relic Chapel and helped develop an app called eShrine, a program for Apple products available for free on the App Store. Users may search the relic directory and access an image of each relic; work is still underway on adding saints’ images, life stories and prayers.
He is also working to add to the relic collection. “My goal is to get modern ones that speak to American Catholic sensibilities,” such as two American saints, St. Mother Theodore Guerin, foundress of the Sisters of Providence of St. Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana, and St. Katharine Drexel, foundress of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, of Bensalem, Pennsylvania. “The question I get probably three times a week is, ‘Where’s your John Paul II relic?’ I’d like to find one of those. But it actually is not easy to get somebody that’s willing to trust you to care for one, even as an institution.”
Left, candles illuminate the Father Brunner Collection; middle, the St. Gaspar case and Memorial case, on the east wall of the Chapel, contain more recently acquired relics; right, the Sorrowful Mother altar.
Sister Regina added to the collection twice during her tenure. She said the process of requesting relics from the Vatican involved gathering a lot of information about the Shrine, including photos of the Relic Chapel and a letter from the archbishop. She was surprised, then, when the Vatican responded to one request by saying the archbishop’s letter of support had to come directly from the archdiocese — not from Sister Regina.
“That experience impressed upon me that the church is very exact about the veracity of those relics,” she said. Each relic is sealed and has official documentation. Ninety-five percent of the Shrine’s relics are classified as first-class, meaning they are from the body of the saint.
Susan Jenkins, pastoral activities minister at the Shrine, said, “I’ve heard a lot that people see the Relic Chapel as like going to a cemetery and visiting your loved ones. For me, it’s more like a family reunion because you are with your brothers and sisters in Christ, and they’re cheering you on. It’s joyful. I also think it’s important for our young people to experience the Relic Chapel because a lot of our saints passed away young. Many were teenagers. And if they could stand up for their faith, then so can we,” she said.
Sister Regina said she also likes to impress upon people that sainthood remains relevant today. “When we talk about the martyrdom of the saints, we think of something that happened a long time ago,” she said. “But we don’t realize sometimes how much martyrdom is happening right now with the persecution of Christians in other parts of the world. They need prayer, too.”
Don Rosenbeck, president of the Shrine, said he is often moved by the deep faith exhibited by the pilgrims who come to the Shrine. “This past summer, several busloads of Chaldeans — many of whom were first-generation Americans — made pilgrimage to the Shrine,” he said. “The depth of their faith was truly inspirational as they venerated the relics of the saints, crawling on their knees from the back of the Chapel to venerate the relic of the True Cross. So we find that those of us privileged to minister at the Shrine are not only influenced by the inspiration of the lives of the saints, but also by the pilgrims who visit the Shrine.”
Speaking to the design of the building itself, Sister Joyce Lehman, President of the Congregation, explained that the Relic Chapel was built with a separate entrance because, at that time, the building served as the motherhouse for the Sisters of the Precious Blood. “The laity wanted to be able to venerate the relics, and the Sisters wanted them to be able to,” she said. With the separate entrance, the public could pray in the Relic Chapel without breaking cloister for the Sisters who were praying in the adjoining Adoration Chapel.
When praying with relics, “it’s not about those pieces of bone or hair. It’s about taking inspiration from the life of the saint,” Sister Joyce said. “These were just ordinary people living ordinary lives, which is what we’re called to. That inspiration from the lives of the saints is a key piece of what the Shrine is all about.”
Sister Regina described a picture of Maria Stein, or “Mary of the Rock” in Switzerland, that hangs in the back of the Chapel. It is alleged that before departing for America, Father Brunner received the picture as a gift from the Benedictine abbot at Maria Stein in Switzerland. During the transatlantic voyage, there was a storm so severe it tore the anchor off the ship, and the people feared for their lives. Father Brunner brought the picture out, and the people prayed. The storm subsided, and there was peace.
Jenkins said she draws inspiration from that incident. “Many people come into our doors suffering from the storms in their lives,” Jenkins said. “When they come into the Chapel, they find peace. Quite often, we have been given the opportunity to pray with these people, and it is amazing how the peace of Christ enfolds them and strengthens them for whatever is facing them outside of our doors.”
– Story and photos by Mary Knapke