The Cathedral has gone but the relics live on. Well, not really. The relics stored in the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament are not living. Most are fragments of bones and hairs of Christian saints who died many years ago.
In a way, though, they do live on. They are precious keepsakes, a priest told me. Think of them like great-granddad’s pipe and great-grandmas’ spectacles. Families preserve those sorts of things, in honour and remembrance. Religious relics are priceless mementoes of great people in the Church. Then the priest added: “think of Maradona’s World Cup shirt – to some people a sweaty old rag, to football fans a multi-million dollar treasure”.
Keeping relics of saints in churches around the world is a long-held Catholic tradition. Relics are a “tangible connection” with the saints. These sacred items remind us of their inspirational lives and their holiness.
Bishop Grimes, the first Catholic Bishop of Christchurch and the man who “built” the cathedral, enjoyed collecting things. He acquired nearly 300 relics for the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament. They came from sources in many countries.
Among the collection is one that is most special relic and very different from the other relics. It is a fragment of wood, quite small, about the size of two matches stuck together. That precious piece of wood came from the True Cross on which Jesus died. The relic is set behind glass in the crux of a metal cross.
Some people may doubt if this relic is genuine. Disbelievers have scoffed and suggested that if all the relics that are claimed to come from the True Cross were put together, there would be enough wood to make many crosses. Not so! The disbelievers are probably unaware that, in 1870, Frenchman Rohault de Fleury traced all the True Cross relics in the world, including relics that had existed but had since been lost. He listed all of them in a catalogue. He discovered that if all the relics were glued together there would be barely enough wood to comprise one third of the cross of Jesus.
So, where did the rest of the True Cross go? It seems that after Jesus’ body was taken down from it, the cross was put aside somewhere and forgotten. In the Fourth Century the cross was unearthed in Jerusalem. Perhaps some Christians cut pieces off as keepsakes. The remains of the cross were then lost again. Half a century later, as interest in holy relics grew, the Church ordered that all relics be certified as authentic and listed in a register. Authentication and certification of all relics has continued, throughout the world, for the last 1000 years.
It is no wonder, then, that Bishop Grimes collected relics for his new Christchurch Diocese. He had met Pope Pius X on visit to Rome. The Pope had shown great interest in Christchurch and had encouraged the bishop to build a fine cathedral there. So, when the cathedral was nearing completion, the bishop wrote to the Pope, asking for an appropriate sacred object to help mark the opening of the cathedral, in 1905. After a short wait a relic of St Anthony arrived in a “handsome bronze reliquary”.
Most of the relics that were in the cathedral are tiny. The largest is a jawbone of Saint Vincent, about as big as the palm of your hand. Another one is a letter written by St Francis de Sales to St Jane Francis de Chantal more than 350 years ago. Most are relics of European saints. They include some of the Apostles, the Evangelists, Martyrs, Confessors, Blessed Virgins and Doctors of the Church.
One relic came from a place much nearer to New Zealand. It is a bone of St Peter Chanel, a French Marist missionary priest who was murdered on the island of Futuna in the South Pacific in 1843. The whole population of Futuna converted to Christianity three years later.
Money problems faced Bishop Grimes in the building of the cathedral. The relics came without cost, as they were allowed to be donated but not sold. However, the cost of reliquaries was high. A reliquary is an ornately decorated container to hold a relic. These expensive items had to be paid for.
Also expensive was the building and fitting-out of a “side” chapel within the cathedral. This, the Chapel of the Holy Relics, was where most of the relics were kept. People venerated them there. Melbourne Archbishop Thomas Carr, who performed the solemn dedication of the chapel, extolled the “unique collection of relics, undoubtedly the richest and most varied in the Southern Hemisphere”.
In subsequent years several further side chapels were added along the north wall, inside the cathedral. Some relics were then spread among the new chapels. Others were sent to churches throughout the Diocese. The Holy Relics Chapel became the Chapel of St Therese of the Infant Jesus.
By the 1970s the cathedral required extensive repairs and refurbishment. A new stone altar was installed and some of the relics were placed in a “cavity” cut into it. Most Catholic churches have at least one holy relic stored in their main altars. At the beginning of Mass you will see the priest bend and kiss the spot above where the relic lies.
Some relics were sealed in bottles and jars and encased in a steel box. The box was placed in a recess under the floor of the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, directly below the tabernacle. There they remained until damage from the Christchurch earthquakes of 2010-2011 caused the cathedral’s demolition. The relics box was recovered intact, although water had seeped in, causing minor damage. These items reside now in the Diocesan Archives storeroom, awaiting decisions on a new cathedral.
Acknowledgements: Michael Crean (author)