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Saturday, July 16, 2016

Timon’s Treasure: The Forgotten Reliquary of St. Joseph’s Cathedral

by Paul Lubienecki, PHD
©Copyright 2015. All rights reserved by the author.

On a sunny day in August 2011 Msgr. James Campbell, then rector of St. Joseph’s Cathedral in downtown Buffalo, received an unusual phone call from Sr. Eve Amadori, SSJ. “I think I have something that belongs to you,” she advised. The archivist for the Sisters of St. Joseph was reorganizing and cataloguing the various items held in storage by the Sisters when she discovered a long lost object in a closet at the Sister’s headquarters in Clarence. Apparently this large item, which measures two feet by three feet within an elaborate frame, is some type of a beautiful ornate embroidered reliquary. This only heightened the intrigue. Where did it come from and why was it there? Who made it and for what purpose?

Further inspection by Sister Amadori uncovered a fragmented handwritten note on the back of the reliquary and some writing on the rear panel of the frame. The note indicated that the Diocese of Buffalo placed the reliquary with the Sisters of St. Joseph. However there was no detailed information as to a date of the transfer or for what reason. Realizing that it was the property of the Diocese, Sister Amadori placed the framed reliquary in the trunk of her car to return it to the Cathedral.

After Msgr. Campbell received the reliquary he and Sister attempted to put together the pieces of this sacred puzzle to determine its origin and history. Msgr. Campbell noticed five wax seals on the reserve panel. The markings had symbols indicative of a bishop or other high ranking clergy in the Catholic Church. This signified that the reliquary was authentic as certification of such a religious item needed proper seals by a bishop or Vatican official. Unfortunately, the faded wax seals made identification of an exact source nearly impossible. Also on the bottom at the back was a label: “Genesee Picture Frame Co.”

Msgr. Campbell proceeded to engage in some ecclesiastical detective work. Searching through the records of St. Joseph’s Cathedral and the diocesan archives he could find no documentation related to the reliquary. Bishop Timon in some correspondence made a vague reference to “bringing back some relics” but there was nothing to link this notation to the extraordinary item. The good monsignor then contacted the Genesee Picture Frame Co. The business, which was founded in 1904, had no record of any work order on the reliquary or with the diocese. The frame appeared to be intact and unaltered however the words “new glass” was scribbled on the back side. This might be why the label was placed there but documented proof of any work completed was not evident and so the mystery remained.

Msgr. Campbell and Sister Amadori continued in their efforts to solve this puzzle. They soon ascertained that Timon’s reliquary was probably a gift of Pope Pius IX for the cathedral under construction from 1851-1855. The Second Council of Nicaea in 787 AD ordered that no church should be consecrated without relics additionally; it was customary for the Vatican to give a relic(s) to a new bishop or diocese so this was not an uncommon gesture. Examination of historical records revealed that no reliquary, such as this, was ever placed on public display. Msgr. Campbell believed that it likely was housed either in the sacristy at the Cathedral or at Bishop Timon’s residence. During his tenure Timon’s rectory, located at Main and Niagara streets, was also the diocese’s seminary.

Wherever the sacred object resided it did so in obscurity until around 1912. At this time Bishop Colton was constructing a new cathedral at the corner of Delaware and Utica streets. It is believed that the bishop placed the reliquary with the Sisters of St. Joseph for safekeeping until the project was completed. The Sisters, who operated the Cathedral School and lived in a covenant on Main Street and Dewey Avenue, seemed to be the logical choice for such an object. However, Sister Amadori found no evidence that the Sisters ever displayed or venerated the reliquary. Msgr. Campbell spoke with Msgr. Paul Juenker, the last rector of “new” cathedral, and he also stated that the reliquary was never on view at the cathedral. When Bishop Colton died in 1915 and the Sisters eventually moved their motherhouse from Buffalo to Clarence, New York the reliquary became just another item for storage in the archives.

With the re-discovery of the sacred object its historical journey commenced once more. Msgr. Campbell sought a suitable site for the reliquary and realized that the item not only was religious in nature but a historically significant object. Intending to present it in an appropriate manner he had the reliquary photographed and designs fabricated for its eventual display. The photographs proved to be invaluable. The minute script and lettering cannot be read properly. Computer enhancement of the photographs was the only viable method to read the names of the saints. But the mystery of its source and designers remained. In 2014 the good monsignor asked this writer to identify and catalog the saints. More importantly, my mission was to fill in the missing parts of the historical narrative.


The word relic comes from the Latin reliquiae for remains and is some object, notably part of the body or clothes, remaining as a memorial of a departed saint. The veneration of relics is usually associated with Catholicism yet many other religions, such as Buddhism, Hinduism and others honor the remains of holy men and women. Early Christians venerated the remains and various personal items of martyrs and saints. By the Middle Ages cult-like attachment to relics became common. The veneration of a saint’s relic by the faithful reflected a belief that the saints in heaven interceded for those on earth. Cures and miracles were attributed to relics, not because of their own power, but because of the holiness of the saint they represented. Saints’ relics empowered people to overcome the abstract and make a connection with the holy. Saints did not perform miracles as only God performs miracles, but saints were intercessors. The Council of Trent in 1563 enjoined bishops to instruct their flocks that “the holy bodies of holy martyrs are to be venerated by the faithful, for through these [bodies] many benefits are bestowed by God on men.”

Pilgrims visiting the sites of relics believed that they would acquire the protection and intercession of the sanctified deceased. Relics provided an economic effect as well. As holy relics attracted pilgrims these religious tourists needed to be housed and fed. Pilgrimage sites became a source of income not only for the destinations that held them, but for the abbeys, churches and towns en route. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales was reflective of this economic impact. Relics were also prized as they were portable. They could be possessed, inventoried, bequeathed, exchanged and even held for ransom. They added value to an established site or conferred significance on a new location. Offerings made at a site of pilgrimage were an important source of revenue for the community who received them on behalf of the saint.

The Catholic Church’s official stance is that the bones, garments and other items of the saints should not be worshiped but honored as the faithful should look beyond these sacred objects toward God. By the early nineteen century the medieval significance of relics declined; they were no longer viewed as a talisman. The Church focused on the heroic life of the saint as reflecting the life of Christ. Consequently the faithful were invited to contemplate about and pray to the saint as an expression of one’s faith.

Relics of the saints were placed in reliquaries which were containers or shrines to these holy men and women. Reliquaries evolved from simple vessels to ornate and elaborate repositories that were works of art constructed of wood or precious metals. The reliquary at St. Joseph’s Cathedral is composed of linen and silk materials with elements of gold thread and pearls. In the center of the reliquary is an embroidered cross containing a fragment of the cross surrounded by objects from the crucifixion such as parts of the crown of thorns and bandages. Its intrinsic value is the precise and complicated embroidery work transforming this hand crafted piece into a masterwork of religious art.


Msgr. Campbell sought advice from several sources in particularly from Dr. Holger Klien at Columbia University who advised that it “echoes other reliquaries from the 16th century.” Timon’s reliquary is significant because it is set as a calendar making this type of reliquary unusual and rare. The feast day of various saints is based on the Roman Martyrology which is a catalogue of martyrs and saints arranged according to the calendar. The specific commemoration day for a martyr is usually the date when he or she entered into “eternal glory in heaven.” The feast day for a saint is often the day he or she was born. The martyrology is a compilation of historical fact and, in many instances legends, of the lives and heroic acts of the saints and martyrs. Accuracy is not necessarily fundamental; the heroic virtue of that person, leading the faithful to God, is paramount.

For instance, the feast day of the martyred saints in North Africa: Saturninus, Dativus, Felix, Ampelius and Companions, in 304 AD and commemorated on February 11th and again listed for March 31st is based on local legend and oral tradition. The same is valid for St. Simplicius, who is commemorated on August 26th and listed as a possible Roman martyr. However he may have lived in either the 2nd or 3rd centuries AD; the factual material on him does not exist but in the localized martyrology the tradition declared him as a martyr.

The Roman Martyrology has evolved over the centuries. Based on the Cathedral’s reliquary the calendar of saints is from the “old” martyrology revised by Pope Benedict XIV in 1748. Since then the official Roman Martyrology has been updated several times. A significant piece of this puzzle was why some saints and martyrs were selected over others. Without authentic documentation it was difficult to unravel the mystery.

However two items stand out which assist in dating the reliquary. First, many of the martyrs’ remains were from North Africa and Asia Minor. Relics of martyrs, from both the east and west, were in demand during the early nineteenth century. With unrest in Europe, clinging to holy objects brought reassurance to the faithful and was a reminder of the significance of a unified Church. Secondly some of the individuals on the tapestry were not officially canonized as saints until after Timon received this gift. For instance Blessed Baptista Varani, whose feast day is June 2nd, died in 1458 and was beatified (the last step before sainthood) in 1843. This placed the creation of the reliquary at sometime during the 1840s.


As the pieces of this puzzle came together the lingering question was who fabricated the tapestry and toiled at the intricate embroidery. The generally acceptable answer was that cloistered nuns were responsible for the masterpiece. As sequestered contemplatives the lives of women religious centered on their daily prayer and work. In the monastery personal time was not permitted nor was any individual project. To ensure adherence to this nuns labored as a group on various endeavors such as illuminated manuscripts, art or embroidery which supplied the Church with the ornaments required for the liturgy and worship. While controlled and supervised by the male clergy the nuns were able to express their female spirituality and indirect individuality through their completed assignments.

But who specifically designed and sewed the reliquary? The seals on the back of the frame provide some solid clues. Due to age and condition some of the wax seals are fragmented or damaged beyond recognition. However one of the seals contains a galero, the wide brim hat with six tassels, that signify the rank of bishop. Under that is the emblem of the Order of Friars Minor and a crest with a monstrance and boat situated within.

The wax seals are significant as they certify that the authenticity of the relics. The seals provide more specific information as to the origin of the reliquary. The Franciscan coat-of-arms with the galero suggests the reliquary’s creation within that religious order. Poor Clare Sisters, the women religious associated with the Franciscans, operated many cloistered communities throughout Italy. Documented within their history is the construction of reliquaries as religious objects and as works of art. Additionally, a Poor Clare Sister, Blessed Baptista Varani, as well as Blessed John of Prado, Blessed Bernardine of Fossa and Blessed Andrew of Spello and unfamiliar Franciscan saints such as St. Bernadino of Siena, St. Joseph of Leonissa and many others are venerated on the reliquary. Timon’s tapestry very likely then is the work of Poor Clare nuns from Italy to honor Franciscan holy women and men.

This is further solidified by the galero on the seal. The Sisters would have to be under the protection of a specific Franciscan bishop and there is plausible evidence that the seal is from Concezio Pasquini, OFM, bishop of the Diocese of Ariano, Italy from 1842-1858. The Poor Clares operated a monastery in nearby Naples. It is not uncommon for a bishop to commission the sisters to complete a work such as a tapestry or illuminated book to be presented as a gift.

The dates of Pasquini’s tenure were important. To fabricate such a religious tapestry certainly was time consuming involving at least several months or more of daily work by numerous nuns. In 1843 Baptista Varani was declared a “Blessed” and as a newly proclaimed Franciscan holy woman she was placed on the reliquary. Upon its completion the object almost certainly was on private display for Bishop Pasquini, OFM.

Timon conducted multiple trips to Europe to secure funds for the construction of the cathedral on Franklin street. On one such trip in 1849-1850 proved to be very beneficial. Timon met with the Pope and received $2000 in gold. King Ludwig of Bavaria donated three stained glass windows portraying the Incarnation, Redemption and Resurrection; these windows still adorn the sanctuary. Buffalo’s bishop also met with the King of Naples who donated $1500 and “some art” for the new cathedral. The gift of the reliquary was very likely from the King of Naples having come from the work of the Poor Clare nuns in Naples under the sponsorship of Bishop Pasquini. Upon his return to Buffalo “Timon’s treasure” was eventually consigned to a forgotten segment of local history.


Without meticulously documented evidence the history of the reliquary is subject to debate. However my conclusions on the origin of the reliquary are categorically consistent based on extensive research and examination of the available material and the history of such religious items. Relics are physical objects that carry the virtus, that is, the virtue of that saintly person yet some find the veneration of bone fragments or body parts of holy men and women to be repugnant. While the authenticity of some of the relics is questionable the true value and genuineness of this reliquary is contained in the faith that is nurtured. Timon’s gift to the faithful is on permanent display at Our Lady’s Chapel at St. Joseph’s Cathedral on Franklin Street in Buffalo. Looking upon this beautiful tapestry we are reminded of those saintly men and women who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith and are encouraged to live our lives accordingly.

About the author: Paul E. Lubienecki, Ph.D., is a historian writing on local western New York history.  Currently, he is completing his manuscript on the history of the Catholic labor schools in Buffalo and their influence on organized labor.