The Finding

In April 2021, a box was recovered from beneath the floor of the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Ōtautahi Christchurch. In medieval Europe, the term for an inspired rediscovery of a saint’s relics was inventio-a finding.

Undisturbed for nearly half a century, and almost forgotten, the box contained glass coffee jars. Their precise content was known only to the priest who arranged their burial on 26 April 1975, but here enshrined in glass, wrapped in steel-lay the bones of saints.

And not just any saints. They included leaders of the early Christian churches of the Near East; the first Christians to be martyred for their faith by the Romans; the earliest leaders of Europe’s national churches; and those who led efforts to reform and reinvigorate Christianity in the Middle Ages and beyond.

The Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, seat of the Bishop of Christchurch-the head of the Roman Catholic Church in Canterbury and the West Coast-stood for just over a century on Barbadoes Street. Its doors closed following the September 2010 earthquakes. An eventual decision to deconstruct the building was taken after further damage resulted from the earthquakes of the following year. While the building was being taken down the box of relics was recovered. But why was it there in the first place?

The Christchurch collection of saints’ relics was assembled by the first Roman Catholic bishop appointed to Christchurch. John Joseph Grimes arrived in Ōtautahi in 1888. He was an unusual appointee, and his parishioners were at first not sure what to make of him. At the time, it was common for Irish bishops to be appointed to cater to the Irish Catholic diaspora. New Zealand’s most English city was, however, to receive an Englishman. But Bishop Grimes was also a member of the Society of Mary. Many Catholics at the time had spoken strongly against appointing a Marist to Christchurch. In 1885, one Australasian Church body even went so far as to vote against appointing any member of the Society to the city. And yet the new bishop not only quickly won over Roman Catholics but proved remarkably popular with the wider population. While advocating for education, pursuing a passion for Aotearoa’s natural history, and encouraging the humane treatment of animals, Bishop Grimes brought the saints to Ōtautahi.

At first glance, the two Gregg’s Coffee jars recovered over a century after the bishop’s death contain little beyond a confusion of bone and metal. Yet-remarkably-the jars remained water-tight. This enabled researchers to identify labels attached to many of the individual items, some dating back perhaps as much as a millennium. In addition, a list had been kept of the collection. Bishop Grimes recorded the saints he brought to Christchurch in a ledger that both noted the individual relics and also included information intended to authenticate each item.

Until the Reformation swept across Europe in the 1500s, varied collections of saints’ relics lay at the heart of most Christian communities. In assembling a collection that represented the whole history of Christianity, Bishop Grimes was following in the footsteps of his medieval predecessors.

What role did the remains of the saints serve? And why were they hidden in the 1970s?