Tales of healing emanating
from a Troy Hill chapel spur the debate over religion's role in medicine
Sunday, October 15, 2000
By Christopher Snowbeck, Post-Gazette Staff Writer
A GROUP OF DOCTORS gathering in Pittsburgh for a convention this
month sat before a resolute little nun named Sister Margaret Liam Glenane
and received a crash course in the anatomy of holiness.
The sister directed attention to a tooth that was once in the head of
St. Anthony; the skulls of women martyred for their virginity; and countless
bits of bone from Christian saints.
She also talked about the priest who assembled the collection of more
than 4,200 relics in this Troy Hill chapel -- the chapel where he preached
in the late 19th century and healed people through prayer and medicine.
"All he wanted was a place where he could have his relics and do
his healing," Sister Margaret told the group touring St. Anthony
Chapel. "So many, many miracles took place here."
The doctors had assembled for the annual meeting of the Catholic Medical
Association, during which about 200 physicians attended headline-grabbing
sessions on everything from stem-cell research to eugenics to abortion.
But for a 30-minute sliver of time wedged between events, about 50 of
the physicians listened to Sister Margaret describe the relics, including
22 splinters that were said to be from the cross that Jesus carried, two
thorns from the crown he wore when crucified and a piece of the table
where Jesus and his disciples ate the Last Supper.
It's the largest public collection of relics anywhere outside the Vatican.
Each of the relics is housed in a "reliquary" -- cases that
can be as humble as a medallion or as grand as two stunning gilded placards
that decorate the front of the church. These "calendar reliquaries"
stand not quite as tall as Sister Margaret and together contain a chip
of bone or some other relic from a different saint for every day of the
Standing before the majestic display of reliquaries that cover the 25-foot-tall
walls of the chapel, Sister Margaret told the doctors about how God has
directed his healing power through the relics to countless Pittsburghers
since the chapel opened in the late 19th century.
What you might not know is that stories of healings continue today.
There are three sorts of relics: relics of the first order, which are
often bones of a saint; of the second order, which are possessions of
the saint; and of the third order, which are objects that came into contact
with first-order relics.
There's not much evidence of when people first started making relics
from the bodies and possessions of holy people, but theologians and historians
have some ideas about it.
They agree that it is a practice as old as the Catholic Church itself
-- probably even older, says George Worgul Jr., professor of theology
at Duquesne University. Humans have a sense of being connected to one
another that is broken by death, Worgul said. Retaining a lock of hair
or a bit of bone helps people hold on to that person.
In the Catholic tradition, the idea of maintaining a physical link to
a dead person fused with the concept of saints and martyrs -- people who
led such exemplary lives that at death they entered into full communion
with God in heaven. The worthiness of a dead person for sainthood could
be demonstrated by the miraculous healings connected with remains.
Relics remain an important part of worship at St. Anthony's, but not
necessarily throughout the Catholic Church. With the Second Vatican Council,
church law eliminated the requirement that relics be placed in altars.
"Probably the reason there is less interest in relics today is because
our spirituality is different," said the Rev. Ron Lengwin, spokesman
for the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh. "I think it's centered on
the Eucharist and our participation in it. Our relationship with God is
fostered more now through the sacraments than through relics."
So what were the Catholic physicians doing at St. Anthony's last week?
In part, they were seeing one of Pittsburgh's unique sites.
The Rev. Suitbert Goedfried Mollinger became the pastor of Most Holy
Name of Jesus Parish on July 4, 1868.
Because of his special devotion to the 13th-century Portuguese saint
St. Anthony, Mollinger built the chapel in the 1880s and enlarged it a
decade later. The addition houses life-size stations of the cross that
Mollinger imported from Europe. The older portion is home to the relics.
The son of a wealthy family in the Netherlands, Mollinger brought some
relics with him when he first came to Pittsburgh. Most he acquired through
contacts in Europe as political struggles in Italy and Germany led to
the destruction of monasteries and the dispersal of relics to pawn shops.
Some relics were sent to America for their protection.
Mollinger had been trained as a physician, although it's unclear if he ever finished medical school. People who came to St. Anthony's in search of healing received a physical from Mollinger, advice that they pray through the relics to God and prescriptions of pharmaceutical
remedies that were filled in a back room at the church.
But this story and Sister Margaret's tour had much more meaning than a
tourist's diversion to Dr. Barbara Neilan, an oncologist from Wilmington, Del.
Neilan and two other physicians -- Dr. Rosemary Horstmann of Allentown, Pa.,
and Dr. Diane Gowski of Tampa -- missed the bus that most of the doctors took
back to their hotel after the relic tour and stayed with Sister Margaret to hear
With the physicians in tow, she pointed beneath the altar to an exquisite
golden trunk brought from Rome in 1880 that contains the entire skeletal remains
of the martyr St. Demetrius. As she led them through the nave, Sister Margaret
pointed out a life-size statue of St. George in a reclining position; on a shelf
above the statue lies a reliquary containing the skull of St. Theodore.
Sister Margaret also told the doctors of the stories of miracles that are
still taking place St. Anthony's.
A man came to the chapel in the last year to pray that his brain tumor and
lung cancer might be cured, the sister said. He returned several weeks after his
first visit to say the tumor was gone and that he would soon undergo tests to
check on the status of the lung cancer.
Sister Margaret said she had been meaning to call the man to find out the
latest on his case, but the recovery surely was a miracle, she said.
The doctors' reactions didn't reveal a hint of skepticism.
"I have never experienced anybody having a miracle, a miraculous cure of
an illness," Neilan said in a later interview. "But I have heard
people talk about that, people who are very believable, and there's no question
in my mind that they did experience a miracle. I think it doesn't happen very
often in that way."
Miracles can be sudden cures of the sort that qualify blessed people for
sainthood -- like the healing of a deaf girl in Philadelphia who prayed to
Katharine Drexel. Drexel was canonized this month.
But God also delivers more subtle miracles, allowing people to accept their
fate, Neilan said.
Relics have been a part of the care Neilan has provided to two patients. One
was a Catholic man who gave to Neilan a third-class relic of St. John Neumann of
Philadelphia. Neilan held the relic whenever she prayed for her patient.
Ultimately, the man died of a lymphoma, and Neilan held on to the relic until
one day when a patient came to her office wearing a number of medals on her
shirt. The relic was in the form of medallion, and Neilan asked if the woman
might like to wear it. The woman accepted.
Neilan says she prays for all of her patients, and for those facing a
terminal diagnosis she often will initiate conversations -- even with
nonbelievers -- about the afterlife.
"I certainly want them to open their mind, if they have been closed to
it before," she said. "I remember one patient saying, 'I do believe
what you're saying [about the afterlife], I really believe that, but you
couldn't have told me that years ago.' "
"I've never had anybody openly voice opposition to [the discussions]. We
all know we're mortal, and I sort of phrase it that way," she said.
"We want you to live as long as you can, and absolutely none of us wants to
die -- preservation of life is what physicians are all about. But at some point,
God will call us home."
The tour at St. Anthony's was important, Neilan said, because it inspires
physicians "to bring more into our practice of medicine the concept of
Including faith in the practice of medicine is controversial for many
Writing last year in the British medical journal The Lancet, Dr. Richard
Sloan of Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York took to task many
studies that have purported to show that religious people facing various health
problems fare better. Aside from the details of the studies, Sloan argued that
the idea of doctors praying with patients or actively engaging the religious
beliefs raises a number of ethical concerns.
First, doctors influence patients by virtue of their medical expertise, but
that influence can be carried over when the topic changes to nonmedical topics.
Is it appropriate for a physician to steer the conversation in that direction?
Second, if religious or spiritual factors are shown to be linked with better
health outcomes, doctors should "take into account" those factors
without "taking them on," Sloan said. For example, it would be
unethical for a physician to recommend that someone get married because the data
suggest that married people are healthier.
Finally, Sloan said, there's always the concern that bringing together
religion and medicine will reinforce old notions that illness is "the
result of insufficient faith."
"Physicians can easily get themselves into a position from which they
cannot extract themselves," Sloan said in an interview earlier this year.
"There's no shortage of adequately trained religious professionals in the
community to whom physicians can refer."
But there is evidence of a movement to open the door to religion.
Almost 30 medical schools offer classes on the links between spirituality and
health, according to a 1997 report in the Journal of the American Medical
Association, and the interest in alternative medicine at U.S. hospitals has
raised questions about faith and medicine.
Doctors at East Liberty Family Health Care Center, which was founded as a
Christian outreach to the poor, regularly pray with patients. And the former
medical director of an alternative medicine clinic at the University of
Pittsburgh Medical Center included patients in sweat lodge ceremonies he
practiced as part of his American Indian religion.
Dr. Margaret Mohrmann, associate professor of medical education and a
bioethicist at the University of Virginia, agreed with Sloan that doctors must
set limits and thinks that, generally, it's a bad idea for doctors to be
religious leaders, too. But there are times when the line should be crossed, she
"Sometimes you realize you're the one who has to be part of this
prayer," she said. "You can't say to the patient, 'This isn't in my
code of ethics.' You have to be open to say, 'I'll be happy to be here while you
Rather than shying away from religion, doctors need to figure out exactly
what role faith plays in healing, said Dr. Herbert Benson, a cardiologist at
Harvard Medical School. Benson runs a center on mind/body healing at Harvard and
runs a course for health professionals three times a year called
"Spirituality and Healing in Medicine." About 1,000 people sign up for
each course, including the next session, in December.
Benson says none of his patients have used relics in practicing their faith.
But he can imagine how doing so could be useful.
"The power and biology of belief itself are quite great," he said.
"In other words, many different conditions are helped by belief itself. ...
One has to differentiate between the power of belief itself and the inherent
healing aspects of what people believe in. I'm not saying that such relics don't
heal. But the mechanism by which they heal has to be further defined."
For some doctors at the Catholic Medical Association, figuring out how to
bring together religion and medicine isn't a problem.
"For patients that accept intercessory prayer, I think it would be worth
while to pray with them," said. Dr. Charles Prezzia, president-elect of the
association and the medical director at USX. "If a patient doesn't want it,
you can't force it on them, whether it's a medicine, a surgical procedure or an
offer of prayer. It has to come within the context of a physician-patient
Ideally, physicians in the association look at God as the source of all
healing, whether natural or supernatural, Prezzia said. The doctors toured St.
Anthony's to see the relics, he said, but also because Mollinger's example is
one that Catholic physicians strive to follow. The founder of the chapel saw
continuity between the practice of religion and the practice of medicine.
Prezzia's first encounter with the idea that relics could be linked with
healing didn't come until after college, when he read New Testament stories
about a woman with a hemorrhage who was healed by touching Jesus' cloak.
"I can't go out and approve the veracity of every single healing,"
Prezzia said. "My general feeling is, if God wants to heal someone and
wants to use a relic -- if God wants to do it, I'm not going to have an argument
Horstmann, one of the physicians who took the tour at St. Anthony's, said she
has never had a conversation with a patient about relics in her psychiatry
practice. But in her personal life, she believes she has encountered two miracle
healings involving relics, including one case where a relative died from an
illness but was first healed.