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and photos by STUART KELLOGG
Drawn from 1,200 holy artifacts collected by Thomas J. Serafin of Los Angeles, the more than 200 relics displayed at Forest Lawn include a bone from each of the Three Kings (Balthasar, Gaspard and Melchior).Visitors can also marvel at relics of all 12 Apostles; St. Paul; St. Sebastian; St. Constantine and his mother, St. Helena; St. Francis Xavier; and St. Teresa of Avila.
Around the walls of the exhibition hall, 13 tall, stained-glass windows, created in 1903 by Franz Mayer of Munich and now owned by Forest Lawn, stand watch over the reliquaries.
Not all the relics are bones. One reliquary holds a tooth from St. Joseph of Arimethea, and there are also stones from the Wailing Wall, the Garden of Gethsemane and the Grotto of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
Some of the relics are frankly replicas: for example, copies of a nail used to crucify Christ and an etching of Veronica’s napkin, the veil with which she wiped Christ’s face as He walked to Calvary.
But the duplicate nails have been touched to the Roman nail found by St. Helena and now preserved in Rome, at the Church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme. And the etching was touched to the original veil, now at St. Peter’s in Rome.
When spotty record-keeping meets a desire to believe, the stage is set for greed and its twin, forgery. And so, over the centuries, even the most devout Christians have had doubts about the provenance of relics.
Some visitors to Forest Lawn may be offended by displays purporting to be relics of the Passion: a fragment of the Crown of Thorns, a chip from the column at which Christ was flogged, a splinter from the cross on which He was crucified.
But Forest Lawn addresses the issue head-on in its explanatory card for the reliquary holding a piece of the True Cross.
Citing the famous claim that if all alleged splinters were gathered together, there would be enough wood to make three crosses, the label goes on to say: “In 1870 Rohault de Fleury catalogued all the relics of the True Cross, added them up and found that if glued together, they would not have made up more than one-third of a cross” of the type used in Roman crucifixions.
Serafin, whose “E-Simony Report” investigates the sale of holy relics over the Internet, co-founded the International Crusade for Holy Relics, dedicated to stopping the sale of relics on the Web.
In April 1993, Pope John Paul II bestowed an apostolic blessing on Serafin, who is one of only four men in the United States to be knighted by the Order of the Immaculate Conception of Vila Vicos, Portugal.
As Serafin explained to me Dec. 10, “In a strictly Roman Catholic venue, some of the Byzantine saints would not have been included. But Forest Lawn is a secular site, so Margaret Burton, museum director, chose the relics for their historical value.”
The relics also illustrate the wide geography of faith: the English saints Edward the Confessor and Thomas à Becket; St. Augustine of Hippo in North Africa (354-430); the martyrs of Uganda, men and young boys slain between 1885 and 1887; St. Martin de Porres, who was born in Lima, Peru, in 1579; Mother Cabrini, who was born in Italy and became the first U.S. citizen to be canonized by the Roman Catholic Church; Elizabeth Bayley Seton, the first native-born American to be canonized.
When I remarked on how tiny some of the bones are, Serafin said, “I have some that are much bigger, including the top of the skull of St. Gereon, a member of the Theban Legion martyred at Cologne in the late third century.
“But Forest Lawn is a memorial park and mortuary, so I thought it would be in better taste to have no large bones in this exhibit.”
Most of the relics have been authenticated by the Vatican.
“But in the Russian Church,” Serafin said, “relics traveled from monastery to monastery, and some do not have documents.”
That does not faze him, for as Serafin said, “The Russians never fell for the frauds perpetrated in the West: for example, the two heads of St. John the Baptist.”
Forest Lawn Museum