Rare Relics From Jesus' Birth on Display at Church in Chicago

A Roman Catholic church in Chicago, Ill., is displaying a rare relic believed to be of Jesus' manger as well as a fragment of the veil of the Virgin Mary and a thread from the cloak of St. Joseph as it celebrates its 155th anniversary on Sunday.

The Holy Family Church will display the fragments in a crystal reliquary, a vessel in which relics of saints are preserved, according to the church's website.

The church received the fragments, authenticated by Vatican documents, as a gift from the Shrine of Our Lady of Pompeii, a centerpiece of worship for the Italian community of Chicago.

The fragments were originally venerated, beginning in the 5th century, in the Papal Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome.

The Rev. Jeremiah J. Boland, administrator of the church, says he is not in favor of carbon testing the items to see if they are from the beginning of the Christian Era. "The Vatican has its own process to determine the authenticity of things," he told Reuters, adding he was more concerned with it as an object of faith.

"One could argue how real the relics of Mary or Joseph are, but there were all sorts of objects over the centuries that have been venerated and are based on faith rather than on scientific explanation," he said. "In our tradition, relics invite us to deeper reflection on our faith and the call to holiness."

The manger fragment has more authenticity because of the historical reality that St. Helena of the Cross, the mother of Constantine, brought many sacred objects from Jerusalem to Rome in the 5th century, the church says. During that same century, pilgrims also brought fragments of the original crib to Rome and Pope Sixtus had them preserved.

Also on display at Holy Family will be several crèches of the Nativity scene from around the world. They include a traditional Nativity scene that is more than a century old; another set from Kenya made of stone; a ceramic tile of the Nativity and the Holy Family's flight into Egypt is a replica of an 18th century piece that is in the Cathedral of St. James, Jerusalem.

Holy Family, built in 1857-1860, is the city's second-oldest church and one of only five public buildings that survived the 1871 Great Chicago Fire.

Once the largest English-speaking congregation in the U.S., Holy Family has served as a place of refuge for generations of Chicagoans of many races and ethnic backgrounds.