Father Nerinckx’s Kneecap and Other Relics
By Susanna Pyatt1
When I and the other staff at the Heritage Center opened a trunk said to be full of old chalices in November last year, we little expected what else we would find! The trunk had belonged to Father Charles Nerinckx and contained not just antique church goods, but also two chests of relics of Father Nerinckx. Most of these were not out of the ordinary for the Heritage Center’s collections, like a broken quill pen and a whetstone that had belonged to Nerinckx, and some pieces of bone preserved in individual, small reliquaries. But surprisingly, one little box contained loose bones—a vertebra, foot bones, and a kneecap from Father Nerinckx’s remains. How did these relics come to be housed, forgotten, in the Heritage Center?
The presence of these relics in the collections is directly linked to how Loretto has remembered its clerical founder over the past two centuries. After Father Nerinckx’s death in Missouri on August 12, 1824, his remains were treated with great respect and veneration among the frontier Catholic community. One Sister reported that after Nerinckx’s death, “every day after dinner for months…Sisters and pupils went in procession to pray at his tomb. Bishop Rosati [of St. Louis] considered Father Nerinckx’s remains the most precious thing in his diocese,” initially refusing to let anyone take the remains from Nerinckx’s grave at the Bethlehem convent and school in Perry County, Missouri, back to the Kentucky Motherhouse.2 Nerinckx’s tomb in Perry County was associated with at least one miraculous healing, when a Mrs. Burke was cured of her blindness by rubbing earth from the grave on her eyes.3
In 1833, Bishop Rosati finally allowed the remains of Father Nerinckx to be sent to Kentucky. Once at the Motherhouse, the box of Father Nerinckx’s remains was placed in front of the church altar and watched over by Sisters for several days. The box was then taken to the Motherhouse cemetery and buried with ceremony under a simple monument. Father Nerinckx’s Kentucky grave continued to be a site for community members’ prayers into the twentieth century.
Two accounts of healing among the Sisters of Loretto around the time of the congregation’s centennial centered on the use of Father Nerinckx relics. In 1911, a Sister made a novena to Father Nerinckx, desiring healing from an intestinal illness that had persisted since a fall some years previously. In a letter describing the case, the Sister’s colleague wrote that Sister had “cried and talked to Father Nerinckx as she went about her ordinary duties, begging him to cure her—asked him why he could not do something for the Sisters now, when he did so much for them while he was on earth.” Out of desperation, the Sister swallowed a small fragment of silk in which a Nerinckx relic had been wrapped. She was healed of her intestinal issues that night, including passing what she believed to be a fragment of a rib broken in the fall. Then in 1913, a dying Sister in El Paso, Texas, was unable to speak to make a final Confession. The Superior made a sign of the cross with a relic of Father Nerinckx and pressed the relic to the Sister’s tongue, after which the Sister was able to speak.
It is during this same time period that the loose bones we found were removed from Father Nerinckx’s grave. In July 1911, Nerinckx’s remains were disinterred and brought to the Motherhouse Sacristy in preparation for reburial after the construction of a new monument over the grave. A portion of the bones were retained at that time,4 presumably for devotional use as religious relics. This includes two of the boxes we found in the trunk last year: the box of whole bones and a tin of bone dust and wood fragments from the box used to transport Father Nerinckx’s body to Kentucky in 1833.
As the twentieth century progressed, cases of miraculous healing and the use of relics became even more important. The Sisters began a beatification campaign for Father Nerinckx in the spring of 1944, aiming to eventually have their founder made a saint in the Catholic Church. A major step in the beatification process is to prove that the nominated person has at least one posthumous miracle to their name. The Sisters sent out prayer cards with information about Father Nerinckx and a prayer for his beatification. In return, they received requests for relics and reports of petitioners’ successes (or sometimes lack thereof) in supplicating Father Nerinckx for favors, including for healing and various other good fortunes. In some of the most striking cases, supplicating Father Nerinckx through prayers and laying relics of him on patients were believed to have led to healing in cases where medical professionals had given up hope. Letters in the Loretto archives tell of an 11-year-old boy, a Loretto student, who was healed after his appendix ruptured and infection set in, in 1947; and of a 13-year-old girl suffering from cystic fibrosis who awoke from a coma in 1957.
So what changed? The bones and other relics sitting in the Heritage Center certainly are not being used for healing now. The tumultuous 1960s and the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council brought major changes to the Sisters of Loretto, including shifts in public religious practice, the structure of community life, and relationships with the Church hierarchy. Devotional practices, including the use of relics in general, changed as well. For example, altar relics originally brought by Father Nerinckx for the Motherhouse church altar were removed from the church and respectfully buried in the Motherhouse cemetery. According to memory, Father Nerinckx’s trunk was rediscovered in the choir loft during the 1980 renovations. It is likely that the boxes of relics were already in the trunk and came to the Heritage Center in 1980 when the trunk was moved.
The Loretto Community now has other ways of remembering Father Nerinckx and finding inspiration and grounding from his foundational examples. When the Motherhouse church was last renovated, the few objects chosen to be placed in the sacred space were selected from items with historical ties to the community. Many of them were originally brought to Loretto by Father Nerinckx. Sayings of Father Nerinckx are still quoted, and his original written Rule for the congregation continues to be cited and reinterpreted as inspiration for guiding the future of the community as it adapts and moves forward in the twenty-first century. But there is no longer the public religious devotion to Father Nerinckx, and Loretto now gives greater prominence to the role and agency of Loretto’s women founders in forming the religious order. Father Nerinckx is now one founder among others, all of them respected but none of them set on a pedestal. As church goods and museum pieces, objects related to the faith and work of Nerinckx and other early Lorettines are touchstones for the present community, but as for the relics, relegated to a forgotten trunk in the Heritage Center, their use in devotion, as spiritual touchstones, is past.
1 This post is excerpted from a paper presented at the Communal Studies Association annual conference, Winterthur, Delaware, 19 October 2019.
2 Qtd. in Rev. Camillus Maes, The Life of Rev. Charles Nerinckx (Cincinnati: Robert Clarke & Co., 1880), 536.
3 Maes, Life of Rev. Charles Nerinckx, 540-541.
4 Affidavit of Srs. Mary Antonella Hardy and Mary Adolpha Cecil, SL, May 30, 1945, found with collection of Father Nerinckx relics, Loretto Heritage Center.