It might seem like an inauspicious end for a saint, being laid to rest in a Greggs coffee jar.
But for the holy relics buried beneath Christchurch’s destroyed Catholic cathedral, those repurposed containers have housed them safely through more than 40 years and two enormous earthquakes, until they were finally unearthed by demolition teams this week.
The relics – purported to be the bones of saints and apostles – are just the latest treasures salvaged from the rubble of Christchurch’s Catholic Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, which was badly damaged in the devastating earthquakes of 2010 and 2011.
Workers have been gradually deconstructing the remaining building and its ruins, but in the process unearthed a number of treasures that the church had previously thought could be lost. Items and artifacts recovered include altar stones, a decapitated nativity scene, and a charity collection box with out-of-circulation coins.
Christchurch diocese archivist, Triona Doocey, said they knew the location of the relics, and had expected to recover them during demolition. But she said it was “very surprising” that they were housed in such unexpected vessels.
A safe containing coffee jars filled with holy relics and bones from Christchurch’s Catholic Cathedral, uncovered during demolition work. Photograph: Cathedral House
While one might have expected a clay urn or gold-plated chest, the bones were instead found nestled in a pair of 1970s Greggs coffee jars and a Schweppes soda bottle.
“When you think of the reverential objects that they contain, these holy relics, and they’re in a Greggs coffee jar. Only in New Zealand!” she said. While unexpected, she said the containers were a pragmatic, reasonably watertight choice. “That was the 1970s,” she said. “People were very practical.”
The jars held fragments of bone, including one vertebra, and reliquaries – small metal containers that hold relics. Holy relics like these were once a core part of the Roman Catholic tradition. They are believed to be the literal remains of key founders and sites of the faith: bones and blood, fingers and foreskins, burial shrouds, shards of the cross, even mummified heads, from important saints, apostles, and Jesus himself.
In the first century, church authorities had decreed that the altar of every church should have a relic – a ruling that officially lasted until Catholic leaders discarded it in the late 1960s. These had been displayed in the Christchurch cathedral until the 1970s, when relics went out of fashion. At that point, they were buried in consecrated ground beneath the chapel.
A jar containing holy bones and relics recovered from Christchurch’s Catholic Cathedral. Photograph: Cathedral House
Doocey was in the process of identifying which saints the relics belonged to – some names she’d identified were Saint Francis of Assisi and Saint Vincent. They had been brought to New Zealand by Bishop John Grimes, and Doocey said the collection included some “quite obscure” and unusual saints. “It’s quite nice to see his personality coming through… the relics he wanted to collect.” She said the church had old authenticity certificates for some relics, and hoped to connect with the Vatican archives to get more information.
In 2017, the Vatican issued a decree that restated their longstanding ban on buying and selling relics, but there is still a roaring illicit trade –
the New York Times has reported that “according to the Italian police, on average more than 300 relics have been stolen in the country every year since 2010”.
But in the 10 years since the Canterbury earthquakes, these have remained safe as the cathedral ruins fell into some disrepair.
Other items from the Cathedral have not been so lucky – speaking to The Guardian last week, Doocey said some pieces had been taken by enterprising looters.
Two bronze angels set into the Chapel altar and dating back to when the cathedral first opened in 1905 were found to have gone missing from the site when the altar was removed last month. Doocey said the Church was still hoping for their return.