In search of St. Nicholas

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St. Nicholas’ bones, or bones that might be his, are scattered around the world. As National Geographic puts it:

Though his remains are venerated worldwide, nobody knows for certain where he rests in peace—or more accurately, in pieces.

The BBC reported this week that a jawbone hoped to be his at least fits the right time period:

A fragment of bone claimed to be from St Nicholas – the 4th-Century saintly inspiration for Father Christmas – has been radio carbon tested by the University of Oxford.

The test has found that the relic does date from the time of St Nicholas, who is believed to have died about 343AD.

While not providing proof that this is from the saint, it has been confirmed as authentically from that era.

The Oxford team says these are the first tests carried out on the bones.

Relics of St Nicholas, who died in modern-day Turkey, have been kept in the crypt of a church in Bari in Italy since the 11th Century.

The research, conducted at the Oxford Relics Cluster at Keble College’s Advanced Studies Centre, is significant:

Prof Tom Higham, a director of the centre, says this is unlike many such relics which often turn out to be much later inventions.

“This bone fragment, in contrast, suggests that we could possibly be looking at remains from St Nicholas himself,” says the Oxford archaeologist.

There are hundreds of other bones claimed to be from St Nicholas, including a collection in a church in Venice.

And the researchers now want to use DNA testing to see how many bones are really from a single individual – and how many might be linked to the bone tested in Oxford.

National Geographic gives some additional back story on St. Nicholas relics, which are housed in Italy, Russia, France and the Palestinian territories (some, which lived in St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in New York City, were lost on 9/11):

St. Nicholas’s remains, or most of them, may have been spirited from what’s now Turkey to the Adriatic port city of Bari in 1087, according to Reverend Michael Witczak, professor of liturgical studies at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

“During the time of the Crusades, when the Byzantine Empire was slowly eroding, a group of Italians removed his body from Myra and brought it to Bari with the goal of safeguarding a number of the relics from the Turks who really didn’t have any interest in Christian saints,” Witczak says.

These remains still lie in the Basilica of Saint Nicholas, a destination for both Orthodox Christian and Roman Catholic pilgrims. Each May a festival celebrates their homecoming, re-enacted by priests who arrive by boat with an icon-style painting of the saint.

The jawbone just tested came from a church in France but is bas been housed at St. Martha of Bethany Church in Morton Grove, Illinois, and owned by Father Dennis O’Neill.

Archaeological photo: T. HIGHAM & G. KAZAN

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