Recent Conference Paper

I just presented a paper at this year’s Patristics, Medieval, and Renaissance conference at Villanova. This conference is one of the main academic conferences for theologians and so far it’s been really amazing. The key note speaker tonight, Susan Ashbrook Harvey gave a phenomenal presentation on Syriac Christian hymnody and women’s voices. It reminded me of why I want to learn (and am currently suffering through classes where I am drowning in syntax) Syriac so badly. 

My own paper was on a completely different topic. I wrote about a fifteenth century pilgrimage narrative by a Swiss monk, Felix Faber and the somatic way in which he interacted with relics on his journey. I made liberal comparisons with the 4th century pilgrimage account of Egeria. I’ve uploaded it to my profile here for those of you interested. 

I’m looking forward to the panels tomorrow. There are so many great presentations here.


Visiting Relics in New York City

shrine ceiling holy redeemers

(The ceiling of the relic shrine)

I had a bit of an adventure today. For quite a few months I’ve been wanting to visit the Church of the Holy Redeemer (173rd E. 3rd Street, between Avenues A and B in Manhattan). I found out that this is one of the very few churches containing a saint’s body in the US. I have an interest, both academic and personal in relics, bones, ossuaries and the like, but they’re rare commodities in the United States. Such things are, for the most part, a Catholic phenomena and the United States was predominantly settled by Protestants. By the time we gained a substantial Catholic population, elaborate relic chapels were falling out of favor even amongst European Catholic communities. So I was, needless to say, very excited when I found that there was a full body relic (as well as 104 smaller relics) right here in New York City.

It’s bitterly cold here in New York today, so I almost cancelled my outing but I’m so glad I didn’t. I met up with two good friends after work (I teach on Friday mornings in the Bronx), MAG and FMF and we braved the cold to go look at some bones. It was awesome.

most holy redeemer

(The relic shrine with the body of St. Datian)

St. Datian was an obscure Roman martyr. His relic – in this case the saint’s complete body encased in wax—was translated to the US in the late 1800s and rests in the church with over one hundred other relics (bits and pieces, not full bones or bodies). He was apparently a one time persecutor of Christians who converted. Little else is known about him. In addition to St. Datian, the small relic chapel (gone are the days when a body of a saint would take pride of place near the main altar) holds over one hundred other, small relics. The church itself, though relatively plain on the outside is more ornate German baroque style. It’s in some disrepair, but still quite lovely inside (though it doesn’t hold a candle to a European Church of the same caliber). According to what I was able to find on the net, the church is open until 8pm, but they closed up around 4pm, almost chasing us out.

So we got there and found the relic shrine, away from the main altar in a nook on the right, one of several devotional nooks lining either wall. The shrine is lovely and it was a shame that it wasn’t well lit (though this may have been because the church was getting ready to close for the day. The only shrine well lit was Our Lady of Perpetual Help, which I’ll talk about in a moment). St. Datian is small—it always surprises me how small the bodies of some of these saints are. I’ll bet he’s barely over five feet!) but the design of the shrine was quite aesthetically pleasing.

sleepy saint datian

(not the best photo: it was very, very dark and he was behind glass)

A completely unexpected surprise was the shrine to Mary. Apparently, this church is a recognized, official pilgrimage site dedicated to Our Lady of Perpetual Help and Her shrine was beautiful (though the sign, informing devotees that the candles were electric and we should not use matches to light them had me chuckling a bit). I think this was the most beautiful part of the entire church. The stained glass above and around the icon of Mary was breathtaking.

shrine holy redeemer

(the Mary chapel)

All in all it was a most satisfying visit, though I do want to go back when the Church is well lit.

mary shrine holy redeemer church

(the icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help)


(all images are mine. Please do not use without permission.)





St. Maria Goretti in Boston


When I was a child I was fascinated by Maria Goretti. Going to Catholic school from Kindergarten on, one learns about the stories of the various saints as a matter of course. They’re vividly presented and the gruesome horrors of many of their martyrologies linger long and deep in the minds of small Catholic children – or at least they did for me. I always found their trials and sacrifices inspiring, humbling, and it all made me want to be a better human being. Now, of course, my faith is very different. I’ve been a polytheist for thirty years, deeply devoted to my Gods, but I still find inspiration in the spiritual valor of certain saints. There are some things that cross traditions and they continue to inspire and we continue to be in a spiritual dialogue of sorts, across religions, across centuries, across a gulf of experience that resolves in the desire to do right in devotion. I continue to learn from them and as far as I’m concerned, in the chaos and brutality of our world, we need all the inspiration we can get. Sometimes encountering something special about a saint that I particularly liked as a child, is like unexpectedly running into an old acquaintance or friend

That’s how it was here. On Friday, one of my students told me that the body of Maria Goretti, the youngest saint ever canonized by the Church was on a special tour of the US. She was in NYC last week but alas I had missed her. My student kindly sent me the tour schedule and I discovered that she would be in Boston on October 5. I was supposed to work at an art gallery that I co-own in Beacon, but my husband, seeing how disappointed I was, offered to work for me so that I could get myself to Boston on Sunday and Monday. I took him up on that and here I am, sitting in a hotel room in Downtown Boston nervous as hell and waiting for tomorrow to arrive.

That’s the thing about this: I am nervous. Last night before I left New York, I was terrified. I thought perhaps it was that I am traveling alone (I usually travel with a companion) but I’ve traveled alone before to places farther afield than Boston! Then I thought it was just a weird type of separation anxiety from my husband but there was no reason for that. I just got back from a month long pilgrimage. We’ve been separated for far more than two days. It was only as I was chatting with him before bed that I realized why I was having such tremendous anxiety: the last time I was in Boston was several years ago, when my mother was still alive. Then it hit me: We were so incredibly close. When she died part of me went with her and I have been pushed to go on these pilgrimages partly to get that part of myself back. It’s almost a type of soul retrieval. I know it’s a type of soul healing. With that epiphany my fear dissipated.

What Maria Goretti has to do with all of that, I’ll probably never know. My mother, like I myself, was a polytheist. Maria Goretti is the patron saint of purity and mercy and perhaps that’s the thing: I need to be clean in my work and far more compassionate with myself than I have ever learned how to be. I told my husband that sometimes I feel very small, like a lost and motherless child. Sometimes I hurt so badly and the world seems very confusing, as though I exist as a child within myself. Maybe I do and as he calmed me, I realize that if that is the case, then there is also the battered carapace of the adult to protect that child and maybe that is all adulthood is: sorting through the layers, learning to live with the scars, and finding joy and adventure in between.

Coming up on the train today, I read a short bio of Maria Goretti. I knew her story from childhood of course but I wanted to refresh my memory and put myself in the right frame of mind. On the surface she was a young, illiterate Italian peasant girl. She was murdered when she was not yet twelve resisting the assault of a man intent on raping her. The bio I read was fairly gruesome, including the charming detail that when the multiple stab wounds (which included perforated lungs and intestines) were treated at the hospital, no anesthetic was used (I’m not quite sure why not). She died defending her virtue. Apparently even at eleven, she was known to be quite devout and after her death, miracles were attributed to her to the point that she is known as a ‘wonder worker.’ Her canonization roughly forty years after her death was the only time in the history of the Church that a saint’s mother was alive and present for the service. I can’t help but wonder what that experience must have been like for her mother. Maria’s story can be found here.

So that is it. I’ll post more tomorrow after I have visited her reliquary. It’s on view all day. For now, even though it’s terribly early (barely seven pm EST!), I’m off to bed. My journey will continue soon enough and I want to be well rested.