By Meg Friel, Executive Editor
In a tucked away corner of the Durick library basement, hiding between cream colored shelves stretching far above my reach and filled with dust coated books and tired looking boxes, I found myself sitting in front of one especially tired looking box, labeled “St. Edmund.” Although St. Edmund died in 1240 near Pontigny, France, he remains at St. Michael’s in both spirit and in the flesh.
Relics, pieces of sentiment kept from a saint, can range from places a saint has visited, articles of clothing they have touched, or if you’re really lucky, parts of the saint themself. The archives play home to dozens of artifacts from yearbooks to old football trophies, but if you look hard enough, you can find pieces of flesh from St. Edmund himself, encased in layers of protective plastic and boxes, delicately preserved despite the hundreds of years since St. Edmund’s death.
“It’s a little piece of flesh, which we call a first class relic,” said Rev. David Theroux, S.S.E. “If it’s touched the body of a saint, it’s a second class relic. There’s a lot of second class relics out there – first class relics are more rare.”
Archivist Elizabeth Scott takes me through the rows of shelves, scattered with carefully lain journals and seemingly endless rows of folders thick with notes from faculty meetings collected over the decades. Scott’s eyes land on the box labelled “St. Edmund” and we find our way back to her work table. Delicately placing the box in front of me, Scott smiles as she begins to unveil the relics. The small, speck-sized pieces of St. Edmund’s body sit encased in beautifully detailed glass and velvet. One relic of St. Edmund that stands out – a cylinder-shaped container no bigger than my forearm, carries significantly larger pieces of flesh and underneath, a signature from a bishop stating it’s legitimacy.
“That one right there, that is Saint Edmund’s (skin) – that isn’t the oldest piece here, but it’s pretty old,” Scott said. “That is actually from his body, it’s skin and ribs.” The pieces of flesh are kept within glass and plastic containers, carefully keeping the frail pieces of pale skin preserved.
“From a religious study point of view, Edmund was pretty significant in terms of the development of spirituality,” Father David said. “Edmund was involved in resolving it and bringing it to a peaceful conclusion as archbishop of Canterbury. He was a great saint at the time.”
The relics have been collected over a number of years, however, one of the most memorable relics came to St. Michael’s in the 1950’s – Saint Edmund’s arm.
“The arm used to be on campus, and it went from France to America,” Scott said. “They had some new cloth made for it. They used to take the actual body (of the saint) on saints days and people would venerate it. The arm became detached. The arm had been separated for quite some time when the Edmundites sold Pontigny, and they got permission to bring that arm to America.”
“There’s all kinds of stories as to how the arm came off and how it got out of France,” Father David said. “We like to tell the story of one of our priests smuggling it out — that’s not the case, but it’s a good story. It was a time when the saints, relics or pieces of their bodies would be disengaged from the body and used as a relic someplace else. That seems to have been the case with Edmund, as there’s a whole set of relics in the archives here.”
Although in 2002 the arm found a new home in Mystic, Conn., it used to be kept in the chapel here on campus, on full display for anyone who wanted to pray to it.
“The arm was on campus through the late fifties early sixties,” Scott said. “It was in the chapel. People could go in and kneel and venerate the arm.”
The relics now kept in the library are available to students to view. Sign up for an appointment through the St. Michael’s College website under the “Library” tab.