Saint of lost finds home in Md.

Friary: A Catholic center in Ellicott City counts on its relic of St. Anthony to help it reach more people.

March 07, 2000|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

When the Franciscan friars at St. Joseph Cupertino Friary look at their new St. Anthony relic, they see more than a blackened piece of tissue, hardly bigger than a fingernail, looking a bit like a tuft of tobacco spread across a sheet of paper.

They don't know what part of St. Anthony's body it comes from, and they don't much care whether the tissue from leg or stomach or finger. They believe the relic will bring St. Anthony close so he can help heal the sick, give hope to the hopeless -- and possibly transform their quiet friary, set on more than 200 acres of rolling hills in Ellicott City, into the biggest pilgrimage site this side of the Atlantic.

"We feel that St. Anthony is one of many ways to bring Jesus to people and people to him," said the Rev. Greg Moore, guardian of the friary and one of seven brothers who live there full time. "The goal is to provide people the opportunity to encounter God in whatever way."

Although Catholic institutions nationwide claim to have relics of saints, the one at the friary is particularly valuable, said the Rev. Martin Kobos, development director for the Province of St. Anthony of Padua.

Often,relics are of doubtful pedigree, said Kobos, whose East Coast province has about 30 friaries, including St. Joseph Cupertino. Nobody knows for sure whether they come from the saint.

But this relic, he said, was recently taken from St. Anthony's grave in Padua, Italy, and comes with impeccable records -- giving it more spiritual weight than most.

Moore put it this way: "There's no doubt it's good old Anthony."

The relic, and the reliquary that houses it, were a gift from the friars at the Basilica of St. Anthony in Padua. Tens of thousands of pilgrims come there every year to see, among other things, the tongue, jawbone and vocal cords of St. Anthony, a Franciscan monk.

The reliquary, housed in the chapel at the friary, is a gold-plated bust of the saint holding a book in one hand. A simulated flame shoots from the book; the relic is in the flame, behind glass, surrounded by red stones that look like rubies. The saint has a halo and wears a lily, symbol of purity in the Catholic tradition.

Crowds at the friary's monthly healing ceremonies have at least doubled since the relic arrived in November and was placed in the friary chapel, Moore said. And small as the relic is, it could bring big changes to the friary, which was built during the Depression and seems to wear the aura of another era.

On a typical weekday, when no classes or retreats are taking place, the friary lies quiet, with few cars snaking up the driveway. It overlooks miles of farmland, with not a housing development in sight. The architecture adds to the sense of other-worldliness; modeled after a 13th-century friary in Assisi, Italy, it has a central courtyard with a fountain, red-tiled roofs and imposing mahogany doors.

But change is on its way.

Moore said architects are "knocking down the door" to help the friars redesign the chapel to make it more secure and more accessible.

The friars are thinking about adding services to accommodate pilgrims and may consider constructing another building if needed, he said.

And he said they are designing a Web site with information about the relic -- a detail that seems incongruous with the religious habit he wears, a brown tunic tied at the waist with a piece of rope.

Moore expects more people to come when word of the relic spreads; he said the friars have not marketed the relic aggressively, fearing it will attract more people than they can handle.

"We're going very slowly with this, primarily because we're concerned if it goes too far too fast we're not going to be up to the response," he said.

But he doesn't seem too worried about the potential problems that might arise if the friary in Ellicott City becomes popular.

"I don't worry," he said. "That's God's job."

The patron saint of lost things, St. Anthony is often invoked with a ditty: "Dear St. Anthony, please come round, something's lost and must be found."

But Moore said St. Anthony doesn't just help return wallets, car keys and stock certificates. He said he's also a saint who helps people recover from other, more significant losses: health, housing, dreams, talents, sobriety, self-respect.

"People love to come and ask for him to pray for them," Moore said. "They speak to him as a friend. He was a very approachable man. He was very friendly."

Born into a noble family in Lisbon, Portugal, in 1195, the man who became St. Anthony entered St. Augustine's Order of Canons Regular, where he was ordained a priest at age 25. Later, he joined the Franciscans -- followers of St. Francis of Assisi -- and became known as an eloquent preacher. He died of heart failure at age 36.

Veneration of relics goes back to the earliest days of the church, when Christians would hold services at the tombs of martyrs, said the Rev. Albert H. Ledoux, a church historian at Mount St. Mary's College in Emmitsburg.

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