The Five Relics in the Altar

The new altar in our church contains relics of five saints – including three Americans.

The tradition of placing relics in altars goes back to the persecution of Christians in Rome. As early as 125 A.D., Christians crept into the catacombs below the city of Rome to celebrate Mass. Early priests chose the tombs of Christian martyrs as altars.

A crane lowers the 2,500 pound altar into place.

This tradition continues today in most of the altars in Catholic churches around the world. Our altar contains a recess in the mensa (or tabletop) that contains five relics. The relics are sealed under an altar stone.

The five relics are embedded in the altar.

All but one of our relics are first class relics, meaning that they are a small piece of bone. The second class relic is a piece of fabric from the clothing worn by that saint.

Our five relics are especially inspiring for Americans:

  • Saint John Neumann, an early American bishop,
  • Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first native-born American saint,
  • Saint Maria Goretti, a martyr of hospitality,
  • Saint Katharine Drexel, the famous American millionaire nun, and
  • an unnamed martyr, because altars always contain a martyr’s relics.
The altar contains relics from Sts. John Neumann, Elizabeth Ann Seton, an unnamed martyr, Maria Goretti, and Katharine Drexel.

The Saint Katharine Drexel relic is a second class relic because her whole body is buried in Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral Basilica in Philadelphia.


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