Relics uncovered from Christchurch’s Catholic cathedral (on a blue Chux cloth). (Photo: Oliver Lewis)
Relics uncovered from Christchurch’s Catholic cathedral (on a blue Chux cloth). (Photo: Oliver Lewis)

SocietyApril 26, 2021

Saints in coffee jars: The relics recovered from a Christchurch icon

Relics uncovered from Christchurch’s Catholic cathedral (on a blue Chux cloth). (Photo: Oliver Lewis)
Relics uncovered from Christchurch’s Catholic cathedral (on a blue Chux cloth). (Photo: Oliver Lewis)

Oliver Lewis spends an afternoon exploring an archive of the divine, the mundane and the lightly profane in the ruins of Christchurch’s Catholic cathedral.

Father Kevin Clark is smiling.

The former Catholic Diocese of Christchurch archivist died last September. But here he is, looking down at us in the diocese offices, a nondescript building near the Washington Way skatepark. In the photograph, framed and mounted on the wall, Clark sports an almost mischievous grin – apparently he had a wicked sense of humour.

Almost 50 years ago, on April 26, 1975 – the year Robert Muldoon was first elected to power and Dame Whina Cooper led a hīkoi to parliament protesting the ongoing loss of Māori land – Clark carefully placed a collection of holy relics in a steel box. It was buried under the floor of the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, one of the finest church buildings in Australasia, and sealed over with an inch of concrete.

But he obviously thought there was a chance someone would unearth them because he left a note. In it, Clark says the relics were collected by Bishop John Joseph Grimes SM, the first Catholic bishop of Christchurch and the driving force behind the construction of the cathedral. Grimes, an Englishman, acquired several hundred relics during his lifetime, many during trips to Europe. A contemporaneous and perhaps self-aggrandising document in the diocese archives describes the collection as the richest in the southern hemisphere.

“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 account reads.

But by the 1970s, relics were no longer considered du jour in the church. A decision was made to bury them, and Clark was the man for the job. The Friday before last, a week after they were retrieved from the demolished cathedral, The Spinoff visited the archives with Dr Chris Jones, an expert on medieval Europe and associate professor at the University of Canterbury (UC). Having previously described the collection as a sort of who’s who of Christianity, Jones was incredibly excited. Our guide was Triona Doocey, a gregarious, wonderful Irishwoman and the current diocese archivist.

“Most people collect postcards,” Doocey said, referring to Grimes. “He collected relics.”

Incredibly, Clark or someone else had made the decision to bury the relics in Gregg’s coffee jars. Coffee jars! Somewhat staggered by the profane nature of the receptacles, Jones joked that even Martin Luther, the German priest and a leading figure in the Reformation movement challenging the Catholic Church, wouldn’t have gone that far. Doocey, who had donned black gloves and was laying out the relics on sheets of blue and white Chux cloth (CSI this was not) said she’d take it up with Clark when they next saw each other in Heaven.

A selection of reliquaries, in an unusual vessel (Photo: Oliver Lewis)

But the jars worked – mostly. The metal box housing them was found encased in concrete and full of water, flooding that almost certainly took place during the demolition process. Doocey had to carefully drain some of the waterlogged containers. Of the two large Gregg’s jars, one was filled with numerous metal reliquaries, ornate little receptacles bearing the names of the holy figures whose relics they supposedly contained. Saint Francis of Assisi was there, as was Mary Magdalene, a witness to the crucifixion.

But the more interesting jar, at least for the morbidly curious, was the one packed full of bones. I had to keep reminding myself that these were human remains; regardless of their veracity as objects of veneration they were clearly from people who once lived. As Doocey opened the jar and began pulling out the fragments, she puckered her nose. The smell was cold and earthy – like wet clay and decay. Jones was enthused, remarking how strange it was to be in the presence of the relics, how close they made him feel to the Middle Ages.

Father Kevin was still above us on the wall, smiling.

Relics are a form of physical memory, a direct and tangible connection to the divine. According to Jones, they are objects that can be considered to be repositories of spiritual power. There are numerous famous fakes and frauds – the multiple foreskins of Christ, for instance, or the Shroud of Turin – but for many relics, the UC scholar believes we would be wrong to be incredulous. It is possible to trace their authenticity and provenance, particularly those from the Middle Ages onwards. Helpfully, a church council in the 13th century mandated that any new relics had to be authenticated before they could be displayed. Along with the items themselves, Bishop Grimes collected authentication certificates in a large, leather-bound ledger. The diocese archives still has it, a catalogue of saints and martyrs written in Latin.

As a journalist, I’m sceptical. But I want to believe.

On the table in front of us is a human jawbone mottled with age. It appears to be labelled with the word “Vincent”. Doocey has laid out all the fragments. To our surprise, many are large – not the humble flakes and scrapings of bone we had imagined. There is a vertebra, and over there part of an arm or leg bone. Along with the archaeologist working on the cathedral demolition, Doocey plans to photograph each of the bones and then, working with the ledger describing the relics, try to identify each one. The diocese has yet to decide what to do with them, but it seems likely that at least some will be buried in the new cathedral. In the meantime, Doocey means to see to it that they are treated with the reverence and respect owed to the dead.

Among them is Peter Chanel, a French missionary who was hacked to death on the island of Futuna in 1841 – the first Oceanic saint. On the table in the diocese offices, Chanel is in a plastic bag. Or, more accurately, one of his bones is. The fragment was ground down, mixed with relics from several other saints, apparently including Thomas Becket – the English archbishop who angered the king and was murdered in his own cathedral in 1170 – and placed in a cavity cut into the new high altar of the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in the 1970s.

That it was recovered at all is more than a little miraculous. During the demolition, tonnes and tonnes of rubble came crashing down into the interior of the cathedral, crushing the high altar to smithereens. The way Doocey tells it, the archaeologist was sifting through the ruins when she came upon its fragments. Incredibly, the piece of marble the relics were interred behind was still whole and identifiable, so she was able to scrape up the fragments and preserve them.

The bones of saints, supposedly (photo: Oliver Lewis)

If you walk down Barbadoes St today, the gap where the cathedral once stood is obvious: a fenced-off, desolate wasteland. The building, once one of the most beautiful in the city if not the country, opened in 1905. For more than a century, it loomed over everything, a spiritual monument erected in creamy Ōamaru stone and decorated with imposing, classical columns. Inscribed above them on the entablature was a command written in Latin, a directive beseeching onlookers to “Look! This is the place where God is among men!”

God has since left the building. For people familiar with the city and the cathedral, walking past you can feel its absence, that sense of disorientation common to Cantabrians who experienced the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes – who saw landmarks erased, the seemingly permanent razed to the ground. The diocese plans to erect a new cathedral on a more central site, but I loved the old building and, biking past most days, I felt I had to write something to commemorate its fate.

At first, I thought it would be about the demolition workers. How must they feel, I thought, to be involved in the destruction of something so beautiful, so resonate with meaning. Last December, I spotted a man in high vis leaning over the fence on a break. So I asked him. “I feel the significance,” he said. It was hard not to, he added, especially when some of the people who came to watch had tears running down their faces. Then he said something that stopped me in my tracks. There were bones somewhere in the building, and they were hundreds of years old. What? I thought he might be talking about the three dead bishops buried in the cathedral, including Grimes. No, not them, he clarified. Holy relics.

How incredible is that?

Christchurch is far removed from the significant figures and events of Christianity. But 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. Even if the objects aren’t the real thing, in a way it doesn’t matter. For more than a hundred years, people have venerated them as if they were, establishing chains of belief that, in the way transubstantiation turns bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, has transformed fragments of bone into physical representations of the saints.

To be a saint is, usually, to suffer. As we were looking over the relics, another diocese employee walked in to take a look. He had spent time in Boston and told us about a relic there, hair from the head of Saint Maximilian Kolbe. Kolbe was a Polish priest. After the Nazis invaded, he and his fellow friars provided shelter to thousands of refugees, including Jews, at their monastery outside Warsaw. Eventually, Kolbe was arrested and taken to Auschwitz, the notorious death camp. Here he volunteered to die in place of a stranger, joining a group of men selected to starve to death in a bunker as a deterrent after another prisoner ran away. After two weeks without food and water, Kolbe, who had led the other prisoners in prayer, was the only one left alive. Wanting the space emptied, the Nazis killed him with chemicals. Kolbe reportedly met his death with grace, calmly lifting his left arm to receive the injection.

It was a sobering story, and the diocese employee told it well. A few days after we had visited the relics, I sent Jones an email asking him to reflect on our visit. He came back within a few hours. While many people might consider the recovery of a bunch of old bones and broken jewellery to be irrelevant, Jones wrote, for believers and non-believers alike the collection was still an astounding sight offering a vibrant and tangible connection to the past.

“Laid out on jay cloths are one of Aotearoa New Zealand’s most important connections to nearly 2,000 years of European history, and to the story of Christianity.”

And then there was the joke played on us by Father Kevin.

When we visited, among the relics containers was an old Schweppes bottle that had been recovered, full of water, from the flooded metal box. Inside was what looked like a scroll of parchment or leather, stained dark brown and with faint text visible on the outside. It looked significant. This could be something like the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jones and I joked, the revelation of a fascinating historical document.

Moving carefully, Doocey tried to extract the scroll using tweezers. But it was too thick to pull through the mouth of the bottle without ripping. She went to get a hammer. Each dull thwack reverberated through the room like a countdown, ratcheting up the tension. Finally the bottle, covered by a cloth to prevent the shards from exploding everywhere, shattered. For almost 50 years, this document had been buried underground. What would it say? As Doocey gingerly started to unroll it, the lettering slowly came into view. “Kiwi Jackpot Lottery.” Clark had buried three Lotto tickets along with the two coffee jars of holy relics. Pointing to his smiling portrait, Doocey, Jones and I erupted in laughter. Well played, Father Kevin. And while the chances of them being winning tickets seems about as unlikely as the incredible series of coincidences that led to the relics being unearthed in Christchurch in the first place, Doocey still plans to check.

Reflecting afterwards, Jones said this:

“I felt privileged to have been present at a remarkable and unique occasion, one very few historians or archaeologists will ever experience. And to have been the butt of a rather good joke.”

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