The practice of venerating relics is one that dates back to Ancient Greece when they maintained more of a protector role or symbol of tutelage rather than a direct line between the human and spiritual realm. One of the first instances of relics being venerated for spiritual purposes occurred just after Gautama Buddha passed away when his body was divided into eight pieces and placed in different parts of the world. Despite his dying wishes to not be worshipped, Buddha’s followers maintained that providing others direct access to parts of his physical remains would provide a reminder that Buddha himself was indeed once human and attained enlightenment just as anyone else could. Since that time, countless other relics from numerous other Buddhist leaders from around the world have provided Buddhists with a similar sentiment.
It’s believed that one of the earliest examples in Christianity of human remains providing a spiritual experience is in the King James Bible in 2 Kings 13:21 where it states, “And it came to pass, as they were burying a man, that, behold, they spied a band of men; and they cast the man into the sepulchre of Elisha: and when the man was let down, and touched the bones of Elisha, he revived, and stood up on his feet.” Though the practice of handling the deceased has always been sacred, the practice of dividing them up to be worshipped didn’t catch on until much later. It was in 787 CE that the Second Council of Nicea voted to move the already common practice to a decree that maintained all sanctioned altars must hold a relic–a practice in the Roman Catholic Church that continues to this day.
In the Roman Catholic tradition, there are three different classes of relics. A ‘First Class’ relic is one that has a direct lineage to Jesus Christ. Additionally, any body part of a Saint is considered a First Class relic; that would include a flake of skin, a tooth, a drop of blood, etc. To be considered a ‘Second Class’ relic, it must be something that was owned by the Saint, or was an instrument of torture to a martyr. A ‘Third Class’ relic is the most attainable because it can be anything that has touched either a First or Second Class relic. So, if you have the head of John Baptist (numerous heads have been said to be his), you’d own a First Class relic. If I took my Swiss Army knife out of my pocket and touched it to the John the Baptist head that you held in your possession, I now own a Third Class relic of John the Baptist. It’s easy to see where authenticity would be of great interest to anyone who owned any relic. In the Catholic tradition, a legitimate relic can be recognized by its red wax seal and a certificate of authenticity issued by the Vatican. When a Catholic church is dedicated, it must have a relic in its altar stone, though it’s not required that it be a relic to the Saint in which the church is named. Historically, a church could reach out to the Vatican to request a relic and certificate and then typically the request was granted without question. Just a few years ago, a high official at the Vatican stumbled across one particularly famous online auction site and found countless relics being sold as if they were just out of date smartphones. He clamped down a bit on the process and though today obtaining a relic with authenticated proof from the Holy See isn’t unheard of, it takes a little more than writing a polite letter.
When this blog was first begun, a friend shared a book with me called Rag and Bone: A Journey Among the World’s Holy Dead, which is essentially an account of the author doing precisely what I do here on this blog, but doing it worldwide and specifically to religious relics. It was more than I had previously read about relics, and it piqued my interest. If you know me personally, you know that when interest strikes, I don’t sleep until I’ve learned everything there possibly is to know about it. The book got us researching what kind of relics might be accessible to visitors. While researching more, I discovered that The Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome is home to the largest collection of Christian relics in existence, but the second largest collection worldwide is a claim that can be made right here in the United States at St. Anthony’s in Pittsburgh, which claims ownership upwards of 5,000 individual pieces. The second largest collection of Christian relics in the United States is claimed to be located in Ohio, at the Maria Stein Shrine of the Relics and numbers to be a collection of just over 1,000. That second place status is precisely why my mind was nearly blown when I discovered that a priest near Buffalo claimed ownership of a collection of relics numbering just over 1,100 that no one seemed to know about. In wanting to know more in general about relics, I contacted an archivist for the Rochester Diocese and was surprised to learn that there isn’t really a cataloging system of who has what relics. Everyone understands that each church has a relic in it, but the finer details apparently are not collected. The more I researched the veneration of relics, the more curious I got. It didn’t take long before setting up a time to meet Father Michael at St. John Gualbert’s church to find out more.
Father Michael Burzynski is a native of Cheektowaga which is a largely Polish suburb just East of the City of Buffalo. Almost 25 years ago, before becoming ordained, he assisted another parish who contacted the parish he was part of in hopes of finding out more about a particular individual who was slated to soon be named a Saint. He gathered all the info he could find from their records, and was sent a First Class relic of that Saint with a letter of thanks for his hard work. He passed it along to the parish for good keeping and returned a thanks for the gift, informing the sender that the relic was in good hands with the parish. Soon thereafter, he received yet another First Class relic, with a message clearly stating that the original relic was intended specifically as a personal gift to him, and since he had passed it along, this second relic was to serve that purpose. Somewhat unsure of how to personally own a relic, he treasured the piece and dedicated himself to its preservation and veneration. Over the next couple of decades Father Michael would find himself in a number of situations where a local church might be closing and would need to find new homes for their things (including relics), or a member of the parish may have owned a few relics and left them to Father Michael upon their passing, etc. A perfect recipe for being in the right place at the right time, and having a reputation for someone who would provide the utmost care and respect for such a collection, he found himself in care of more and more relics and collection that was growing as strongly as his faith.
Father Michael has always displayed the collection of relics at whatever parish he has been part of and now after being appointed in 2011 to lead St. Gualbert’s in his hometown, he brought the entire collection of over 1,100 relics to be a permanent fixture in the church. Once a personal collection, he has since donated the entire lot to the Diocese of Buffalo with the caveat that it remains forever in its current heavily guarded resting place in a side altar at St. Gualbert’s Church.
It is an honor that Father Michael would invite me in to see the relics and then share the story here with you guys. Assuming that surely if it’s public information that the second largest collection of relics in the United States is in Ohio, then he must want this to be kept a nice neighborhood secret. As it turns out, it’s not unknown because it’s supposed to be unknown, it’s just unknown because people haven’t been sharing the fact that it exists. Father Michael and the parish at St. Gualbert’s would love to see the collection become a place of pilgrimage and visiting for veneration is highly encouraged by all.
I spent quite a while talking with Father Michael and getting his back story. The chance to sit down with someone who has single-handedly honed one of the largest collections of relics in the country was a huge honor. As always, I am grateful for the chance to even enter the front doors of the church, but Father Michael’s trust in me extended to him opening the guarded altar and inviting me into the altar to see the relics up close and experience the splendor of the collection first hand.
Watching over the collection is a wall-mounted Virgin Mary statue that is surrounded by shadowboxes and reliquaries that house everything from blood, to pieces of bone, hair and belongings to numerous Saints. Most notable in the collection is a reliquary that guards a First Class relic to each apostle, a relic to the True Cross and a piece of Mary’s veil. With a collection of relics that lays claim to some of the most historic pieces of Christian history, I asked Father Michael about validity. He explained that over time he has had to become more knowledgeable about things that seemingly have nothing to do with the relics themselves, like being thoroughly literate in different languages that aren’t even used anymore. He took apart one reliquary to show the red wax seal that certifies a relic to be true by the Vatican. Additionally, he has a certificate of authenticity for each piece in the collection. Though he’s confident that each of the relics stored at St. Gualbert’s are real, he also cautioned that there are plenty of fakes floating around, and even said he has purposefully purchased fakes just to prove his suspicions about certain vendors to be true.
Father Michael has been added to my list of “Incredibly Cool People” that I’ve had the honor of meeting as the result of exploring the Burned Over District, and the world-class collection of relics that is housed at St. Gualbert’s will go near the top of the list of cool things I’ve seen. Since this is one of the first pieces online to write about his collection, I’m hoping that the word will spread and St. Gualbert’s will continue to attract devotees and visitors. If nothing else, hopefully the world will soon learn that the ‘Second Largest Collection in the U.S.’ isn’t really in Ohio, but actually right here in Western New York. If you stop by St. Gualbert’s and say hello, be sure to tell them I said hello!
*This post previously appeared on ExploringTheBurnedOverDistrict.com