Who would want to steal the body parts of Catholic saints?

One of the truly weird aspects of Roman Catholicism is their preservation and veneration of body parts of those declared by the church to be saints, seemingly in the belief that viewing and praying to those bits increases your chances of having your prayers answered. This article lists some of the body parts that have been preserved, including (if you can imagine it) Jesus’s foreskin, It is a macabre practice, to put it mildly. This news item about a brain fragment of a saint being stolen raises the weirdness all the way to 11.

Police set up roadblocks in northern Italy after a thief posing as a pilgrim stole tiny fragments of the brain of John Bosco, one of the country’s most revered saints.

The thief entered the church, named after the 19th century saint in Castelnuovo, near Turin, last Friday (June 2), and left with a glass case containing the relic of the saint, who is also known as Don Bosco.

Devotees often visit the church to pray before the relic kept behind the altar. On Sunday, pilgrims gathered at the Don Bosco Basilica to pray for its return.

My question is why anyone would do such a thing? Are they planning to hold it hostage for ransom, as the church fears? And how would one fix a price for such a thing? Is there a black market for the body parts of saints? Did the thieves want to have private access to the relic? But if they are devout Catholics, wouldn’t they think that their god would be kind of ticked off at them for stealing and no amount to praying to the relic would counter that negative?

Perhaps the thieves thought that the gold-looking container of the relic (known as a reliquary) was valuable, in which case they may throw away the contents and try to flog the container. Or maybe they are mere vandals seeking to create mischief, like youths who paint graffiti or vandalize cemeteries.

The whole thing is bizarre.


  1. oualawouzou says

    Meh. The heart of Saint Brother Andre in Montreal (Canada) has been stolen a few times. It was always returned within a few days. Even thieves don’t want to be a nuisance up here.

  2. birgerjohansson says

    Obviously, the thieves hope to re-generate the saint, the way Ripley was regenerated in Alien 4, with memories and all.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    … tiny fragments of the brain of John Bosco…

    Did he die by a massive cranial impact and somebody scraped that off the floor, or did he pass away peacefull and they deliberately sliced open his head to share around the pieces?

  4. says

    This goes back a ways. The church at Conques in southern France, which was one of the pilgrimage waypoints on the way to St John of Compostella, apparently decided that the best boost they could do for their marketing was to steal a saint. So they stole saint Foy. Literally, grabbed the relics. She was allegedly a young lady who was to be killed by being fried on a griddle, but was saved by some timely divine rain so they chopped her head off instead. It was easy to be a saint in those days, you just had to die horribly. So the rubes poured in and Conques became a wealthy little waypoint and they got all kinds of gold and trinkets and made this really cheesy-looking sculpture out of wood with gold hammered over it. I know it’s supposed to be exceptionally moving for catholics, but we had to visit it every summer and it engendered a long-term mix of puzzlement in contempt in me. I’ve moved past the “religious people are some stupid-ass gomers” stage, but saint Foy’s tawdry little rendering into components and fetishes set the tone for my early encounters with religion.

    Some description here: http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/st-foys-golden-reliquary

  5. jrkrideau says

    @ 1 oualawouzou
    More like dumb crooks find it’s hard to fence a heart? It’s a bit like trying to sell the Mona Lisa.

    Or the Montréal mafia is still strongly Catholic and don’t take kindly to this?

    Come to think of it, when did Brother André get canonized?

  6. jrkrideau says

    One of the truly weird aspects of Roman Catholicism is their preservation and veneration of body parts of those declared by the church to be saints

    I’m sorry Mano but this is just too much fun. I am deplorable.

    @ Mano
    Have you ever been to Sri Lanka? Isn’t there a Temple of the Tooth?

    Sorry, but I am chuckling.

    Actually I agree with you about the Catholic weird preoccupation with relics. I remember reading that there was enough “Splinters of the True Cross” floating around in Middle Ages Europe to have wiped out entire forests.

  7. oualawouzou says

    @3 jrkrideau

    He was made a saint in 2010. It was treated as a big deal here (for a time, at least). The churches are empty and falling into disrepair, but hey, we got a saint now!

  8. jrkrideau says

    @ 6 oualawouzou

    Nobody tells me anything!

    What’s this “we got a saint now” business? Are you forgetting Kateri Tekakwitha who was canonized in 2012? You have two now.

    I’m in Kingston and we don’t have any saints. But we do have a drunken PM. And very proud of him too!

    Re Kateri Tekakwitha. There is a memoir by an anonymous Frenchman who spent roughly seven years in New France just before and up to the Conquest.

    He mentions arriving for the first time in Montréal (about 1753/4 ?) just as a festival was being held in her memory. I was reading, well trying to read the book, about a week before the canonization and suddenly said “I know her!” when I saw the Vatican’s announcement. I had never heard her name before.

    Between my lousy French and the archaic vocabulary I didn’t get far into the book ( I was looking at it in the university library) but it was fascinating. He very likely would have met Montcalm—I got the impression he could move in those circles—and, reportedly, met Washington while a British prisoner-of-war before being repatriated to France.

    Someday I must return to it. With a good on-line F-E dictionary!

  9. Mano Singham says


    Yes, Buddhists are not immune to venerating body parts. There is a Temple of the Tooth that is supposed to be a tooth of the Buddha but there are many other relics, including teeth, all over the place. It is weird.

  10. Chiroptera says

    Mano Singham: My question is why anyone would do such a thing?

    Aren’t these things supposed to be magic? I would think that the thieves might be thinking that either they can get some of that sweet magic themselves, or, more likely, sell it to someone who is that gullible.

  11. KG says

    One of the best stories about saints’ relics is that of St. Mark. His body was supposedly in Alexandria, Egypt, until a couple of Venetian merchants stole it in 828. In 1063, the body could not be found, but in 109, allegedly turned up again, when the saint himself poked an arm out of a pillar (so in all probability, the remains now in Venice are those of some anonymous 11th-century vagrant). Coptic authorities, to complicate matters, claim Mark’s head is in the Coptic Cathedral in Cairo.

    However, some early Christian sources say Mark’s body was burned, and it’s just possible that the body stolen from Alexandria was actually that of Alexander the Great. This was kept in Alexandria for 7 centuries after his death, and mysteriously vanished at around the same time the “body of St. Mark” was first recorded there -- in a period when bodies of pagan heroes might well have been destroyed, while those of Christian saints had beome valuable tourist attractions.

  12. busterggi says

    Underground Catholic Club -- 1st rule, never talk about Underground Catholic Club.

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