Published January 25, 2012
Safely tucked away in a private room of the diocese headquarters, a mysterious masterpiece is causing quite a stir in Buffalo, N.Y.
A rare religious relic, an intricate starburst tapestry, was recently rediscovered after being hidden for more than a century.
"We assume that something as elaborate as this had to come from the Holy Father." says Monsignor James F. Campbell.
That is the only thing he can be certain of.
The tapestry contains a calendar of 365 relics of the saints, one saint's relic for each day of the year.
And in the center of the roughly 2-foot-by-3-foot tapestry are what are supposed to be the relics of the actual crucifixion of Jesus: a piece of the Crown of Thorns, the sponge used to dab his lips, and a sliver of the cross itself, all woven into the cloth.
"Collectively, it means a great deal because the spirit of the church is in this framed object,” Campbell says. “You can see how magnificent this particular reliquary is, that just the amount of relics in this has got to say something of itself. It overwhelms you."
News of the reliquary has just begun to seep into the world of academia.
Maureen A. Tilley, professor of theology at Fordham University, says, "It is exciting because it is a link, however tenuous, to the times of the apostles, the time of medieval saints."
The reliquary is believed to have been a gift from Pope Pius IX to Bishop John Timon and what, at the time, was the new Diocese of Buffalo. It arrived there sometime in the 1850s or 1860s.
After the turn of the century, though, it was placed in the care of a convent, the Sisters of Saint Joseph, on Buffalo's Main Street. Last fall one of the sisters happened upon it in the cellar.
But the relic's documentation was never found. And this, Tilley says, creates a problem.
"In the absence of certification and in the absence of a chain of possession, it is very difficult to weigh whether they are real or not," she says.
But that doesn't mean there are no clues to where it came from.
"My suspicion, Tilley says, “is that it would have been made by the custodians of relics, probably from a religious order in the city of Rome, because in the city of Rome at that time there was a systematic scientific excavation of the catacombs, where these relics would have been sitting for a thousand years."
The discovery of the relic has brought a new faith to this once bustling, but now struggling, community.
Attendees at a noon Mass in St. Joseph's Cathedral say it's a wonderful addition.
"There's been a tremendous buzz about it already and it is nice to see that," John Aman says.
"It is good to believe that people put in that much work into something for their faith, and it makes me stronger about my faith," adds Mary Jane Lauk.
The Buffalo Diocese will now look to Rome for answers because the Vatican is usually meticulous in its record-keeping concerning the gifts it gives and receives. But in the meantime, the diocese is working on a way to safely display the tapestry so that the community can view it and be inspired by what is decidedly the most valuable item the Diocese possesses.