Mike Kluck traveled seven hours with his six children to Belleville to pray at the relic of Saint Maria Goretti, the youngest saint ever canonized by the Catholic Church. Kluck drove from Lincoln, Neb., to St. Peter’s Cathedral, where the relic was on display for 16 hours.
“We have all had a devotion to St. Maria Goretti,” he said of his family.
Between 5,000 and 10,000 people were expected to visit the Cathedral on Monday as part of the “Pilgrimage of Mercy: the Tour of the Major Relics of St. Maria Goretti.” Before 10 a.m., visitors were lined up stretching outside the church and down the block. The crowd tapered off in the afternoon Monday, but a steady stream of people continued to flow through the Cathedral. It was packed again in the evening as Bishop Edward Braxton celebrated a 7 p.m. Mass.
“The Diocese of Belleville is privileged to have the relic of the heroic saint, Maria Goretti, in our Cathedral today. It is a moment of grace and a call to prayer for the Church in Southern Illinois,” Braxton said.
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“During my visits to the Cathedral (throughout the day), I have been struck by the steady flow of pilgrims from places far beyond Belleville. Eleven-year-old Maria’s courage in accepting death rather than yield to the sexual desires of her murderer, Alessandro Serenelli, not only inspired him and led to his conversion, but has also inspired and led to the conversion of countless young people to respect their bodies and the gift of sexuality in our secular age, which almost dismisses the value of the family and fidelity in marriage,” the bishop said.
Monsignor John Myler with the Diocese of Belleville estimated about 3,000 visitors had come through the Cathedral by noon Monday. “I really didn’t expect this tremendous turnout,” he said. “People have deep faith and a deep devotion.”
Pope Francis personally requested the body of St. Maria visit cathedrals and basilicas in the United States. The relic is going to 25 dioceses in 16 states.
Kluck only found out about St. Maria’s visit on Thursday and booked a hotel room right away. Then on Sunday he loaded his children ages 2 to 12 years old in their van and drove to Belleville. His wife was unable to attend due to work obligations, and Kluck said he didn’t want to leave any of his children behind.
Kluck especially wanted his 2-year-old daughter Elizabeth to see the relic. He said Elizabeth has a picture of St. Maria in her room, and she calls her, her “little buddy.”
“To see that we thought would be a good experience for us,” Kluck said.
Myler said St. Maria’s body arrived at 2 a.m. Monday in a white tour bus accompanied by two other vehicles. The relic had traveled to Belleville from Wisconsin.
Angela and Russell Field of Defiance, Mo., brought their two children: Maria, 4, and Peter, 1.
Angela Field said there’s not many chances unless you are traveling to venerate a relic. “To have St. Maria Goretti coming to us is amazing,” she said.
“We couldn’t pass it up,” Russell Field said.
Angela Field said: “I didn’t expected to be emotional, but I was very emotional during the veneration.”
The Diocese of Belleville is privileged to have the relic of the heroic saint, Maria Goretti, in our Cathedral today. It is a moment of grace and a call to prayer for the Church in Southern Illinois.
Belleville Bishop Edward K. Braxton
Several local Catholic schools brought students to the Cathedral to see the relic including Notre Dame Academy, formerly Cathedral Grade School, and St. Teresa School, both in Belleville.
Thirteen-year-old Dominic Bouc said praying at the relic was “touching” and a “blessing. It was like a gift sent from God that it stopped at our Cathedral,” he said.
Dominic is an eighth-grader at Notre Dame Academy. “It was just really cool to see the actual remains in the wax form,” he said.
Seeing the relic of St. Maria was especially meaningful for Corryn Hasenstab, who picked St. Maria has her confirmation saint.
“I saw that she was about my age,” said Corryn, a 13-year-old eighth-grader at Notre Dame. “I really liked her and her story.”
Liz Stock, a fifth-grader at Notre Dame, said the story of Maria Goretti inspired her. “I thought it was amazing she would be so forgiving,” the 11-year-old said of St. Maria.
St. Maria is known as “the little saint of great mercy,” because after the 11-year-old Italian girl was stabbed by a neighbor she forgave him before she died the next day — July 6, 1902.
Her last words on her deathbed were of mercy toward her 20-year-old attacker: “I forgive Alessandro Serenelli … and I want him with me in heaven forever.”
“It was a very inspiring story,” said 11-year-old Allison Schwab, a sixth-grader at Notre Dame. “It teaches you to show forgiveness and purity.”
Fellow sixth-grader Ryan Phillips, 11, said he felt comforted when he entered the Cathedral shortly after 8 a.m. Monday. “I felt comfortable before but I never felt that comfortable,” he said. “It was a really nice feeling.”
Braxton explained the meaning behind the relic.
“I am aware that those who are not members of the Catholic Church may have questions about the Church’s long tradition of venerating saints and their relics. This veneration should not be seen as superstition or magical thinking. We pray to the transcendent mystery of God in the name of the saints because of their Christ-centered lives, exemplifying the virtues of faith, hope and love.
“We venerate the relics of saints, especially their eminently gentle remains, not because of a macabre preoccupation with the great mystery of death, but because of our timeless faith in the great mystery of the Incarnation,” Braxton said.
Many visitors purchased small pictures of St. Maria Goretti, which they touched to the casket that contains her skeletal remains covered in wax. Any item touched to a first-class relic becomes a third-class relic.
Members of the Knights and Ladies of the Holy Sepulchre served as a special honor guard watching over St. Maria during the veneration on Monday.
Myler said they are Catholics “whose personal charity supports the shrines of the Holy Land.”
The Knights and Ladies of the Holy Sepulchre standing watch Monday were from the Diocese of Belleville, the Diocese of Springfield and the Archdiocese of St. Louis, according to Myler.
The official ushers were members of the Knights of Columbus and Catholic high school students volunteered to serve as parking attendants.
The next stop for the relic of St. Maria is St. Maria Goretti Church in Westfield, Ind. The relic will be flown back to Italy on Nov. 13.
As visitors waited in line that wrapped around the inside of the Cathedral and out the door on Monday, a movie about St. Maria’s life played on a large screen erected inside the church. They also had the chance to buy souvenirs items, which included pictures of St. Maria, a book about her and a DVD of a movie about her.
Many visitors purchased small pictures of her, which they touched to the casket that contains St. Maria’s skeletal remains covered in wax.
Myler explained any item touched to a first-class relic becomes a third-class relic. A second-class relic is a part of an item that a saint had worn, like a piece of clothing.
“They are quite common,” Myler said of third-class relics, which are often given to family and friends. “In that sense, the relic is shared among faithful people.”
For more information, visit www.mariagoretti.com.