The Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament as it appeared during demolition in December 2020. (Photo: Oliver Lewis)
The Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament as it appeared during demolition in December 2020. (Photo: Oliver Lewis)

SocietyJanuary 24, 2021

The mystery of the holy relics buried in a steel box beneath a Christchurch basilica

The Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament as it appeared during demolition in December 2020. (Photo: Oliver Lewis)
The Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament as it appeared during demolition in December 2020. (Photo: Oliver Lewis)

Under a thick layer of concrete at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Christchurch is a metal box likely containing hundreds of holy relics – a historical treasure trove set to be uncovered after 50 years of near total obscurity.

As the earth shook and buildings crumbled, a statue of the Virgin Mary in the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament spun 180 degrees to look out over the ruins of Christchurch. In the days after the February 2011 earthquake, the figure became revered as a quake survival symbol. Not so the cathedral. After more than a century of use, the beautiful neo-classical structure with its elegant columns and austere, spacious interior is being demolished — the Oamaru stone masonry, witness to countless prayers and scenes of quiet devotion, smashed into a jumbled pile of expressionless rubble.

But while the earthquake destroyed, it also uncovered.

Sealed under an inch of concrete in the floor of the cathedral is a metal box containing the majority of a relics collection once described as the richest and most varied in the Southern Hemisphere, according to a contemporary and perhaps self-aggrandising description in the Catholic Diocese of Christchurch Archives. 

“Nearly three hundred in number, the most precious is a large one of the True Cross. Next in importance are relics of the apostles, the principal martyrs, confessors and virgins of several centuries of the church,” the document, an account of the unveiling of the Chapel of the Holy Relics, reads.

The relics — bone fragments, a scrap of a letter between saints, bits of material worn or touched by holy figures — were displayed in ornate receptacles called reliquaries when the side chapel opened in the cathedral in 1906. They were later distributed around the building until the 1970s when, during a reordering of the cathedral (and at a time when relic display was less du jour), many of the holy items were buried under the floor.

Bishop John Joseph Grimes, the first Catholic Bishop of Christchurch, took great pride in the collection, acquiring many of the relics during his travels through Europe, including fundraising efforts for the cathedral. The English-born bishop initiated and drove the construction project, commissioning architect Francis Petre, who also designed churches in Dunedin, Oamaru and Wellington. The foundation stone was laid in 1901 and the building was finished in 1905, a speed that led Grimes to comment, as reported by The Press, that historically the erection of one cathedral killed an average of three bishops. When he died in 1915, Grimes was buried in his cathedral.

The Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament as it appeared during demolition in December 2020. (Photo: Oliver Lewis)

After more than a century of repose, the diocese hopes to disinter Grimes along with two other bishops during demolition. His collection of relics, too, should be recovered, barring any unforeseen risks. A diocese spokesperson said the main cathedral structure should be removed by mid-March, at which time the collection could be safely accessed. The decision on what to do with the relics will be made by whoever replaces the outgoing Bishop of Christchurch, Paul Martin, the man who in 2019 announced that the cathedral — a category one heritage building — would be demolished, saying the $149m restoration bill was too costly. The diocese is instead building a new cathedral on a more central city site.

“It will be the decision of the new bishop to decide if the relics in the former Cathedral will be entombed beneath the altar of the new Cathedral,” the diocese spokesperson said.

University of Canterbury associate professor in history Dr Chris Jones, an expert on Medieval Europe, described the variety of the relics as striking. “It’s like an attempt to sum up the whole Church in one relic collection — you’ve got a little something of everything,” he said.

“It’s quite possible that some of our best connections to Medieval Europe are in that box.”

A tangible manifestation of faith, relics have a long and sometimes contentious place in the history of the Church. Jones described them as repositories of spiritual power; for believers, they provide a focus for their faith, a way of connecting to the holy. And while many items stretch the bounds of credulity — like the multiple foreskins of Christ on display in Medieval Europe, or numerous claims to particular saints, leading to quips that some divine figures must have had three arms or two heads — the provenance of many relics is well established, Jones said.

Responding to the authenticity problem and booming trade in relics, a Church council in the 13th century decreed any newly discovered items had to be authenticated before they could be displayed. By the late Medieval period, Jones said the trade in relics had reached ridiculous levels. French King Louis IX, for example, paid what amounted to more than half his annual income in the 1230s to acquire what was purported to be the Crown of Thorns.

And while some rulers parted with money, others simply took.

On right, some of the reliquaries (used to house and display relics) recovered from the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in the Catholic Diocese of Christchurch Archives. (Photo: Catholic Diocese of Christchurch Archives)

Venice, Jones said, sells itself as the city of Saint Mark, despite there being no real connection with the historical figure. Instead, Venetian merchants stole his relics from Alexandria and took them back to the city. The Venetians then insisted that Saint Mark was their patron saint.

“And their argument is,” Jones said, “that Saint Mark would have stopped them doing it if he didn’t want to be in Venice.”

While Christchurch is far removed from the significant figures and events of Christianity, by an incredible series of coincidences — or not, if the items are fraudulent — bits of them have washed up on our shores, crossing oceans and changing hands countless times to end up buried in a box off Barbadoes St.

Down the road from the cathedral, in an industrial area backing onto the railway tracks, is the diocese archives. Among its many treasures is a more-than-a-century old, leather-bound tome, essentially a catalogue of all the relics housed in the cathedral. The listings are in Latin and the book is thick with authentication certificates.

Among the various relics is a bone fragment from Saint Peter Chanel, a French missionary who was murdered on Futuna Island in 1841 and later became the first Oceanic saint. Instead of going in the box, his relic was placed in the high altar of the cathedral.

Saint Thomas Becket, who was struck down by four sword-wielding knights in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170, also makes an appearance. King Henry VIII ordered his bones and shrine destroyed in 1540, but Jones said fragments of his bones had already been distributed across Europe by that time so the relic was probably authentic. Other listed relics come from saints including Francis of Assisi, Elizabeth of Hungary and Vincent de Paul. The collection, Jones said, reads like a who’s who of Christianity — a kind of starter kit traversing the history of the faith.

As for the True Cross, legend has it that Helena, mother of the first Christian Roman Emperor Constantine, visited Jerusalem in the fourth century and rediscovered the relic along with other significant items associated with Christ. That started the process by which fragments began to be split up and distributed, Jones said.

It was highly unlikely the pieces in the Christchurch collection were from that cross, Jones said, however it was possible the wood was from Jerusalem and that it dated from the Middle Ages.

“Someone in the Middle Ages probably said ‘this is it’ and from that point its provenance has been observed by people who truly believed that that’s what they were dealing with.”

While it may not have been used to crucify Christ, the wood represents a chain of belief stretching back hundreds of years. Sometime in the next couple of months, it and the rest of the relics will be unearthed from their unlikely home on Barbadoes St — a demolition worker will break through the concrete seal and, for the first time in 50 years, the historical and spiritual curios will be revealed.

“It’s an absolutely fascinating slice of history,” Jones said.

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