Catholic Novena with a St. Anne Relic, and the Thrift Store Next Door

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Just like
in real life, in the Catholic Church you can sort of work your way up the chain
of command when you need a favor. Instead of going to the capo di tutti capi,
as it were, that being God in this case, you can ask the saints to intervene
on your behalf.

This idea always
appealed to me. That, plus there is a saint for everything, and I mean everything.
I don’t think there is a profession or an affliction that is not the special
province of some saint. There are patrons for beekeepers, carnival workers,
country girls and playing-card manufacturers. You can invoke them against anything
from disappointing children to death by mine collapse to fear of insects. One
of my favorite saints is St. Vivian, who is the patron saint of hangovers, although
I am not sure if you pray to her before or after you get one.

Besides all
that, the stories of the saints make for great drama. Many became patron saints
for certain things because of the horrible ways in which they were tortured
or killed. For instance, St. Lawrence was grilled to death, so he is the patron
saint of cooks and bakers. I find it comforting to know that they walked among
us, so to speak, and know the problems real people face.

One of the
more formal ways to ask for a saint’s intercession is the novena, which
is a ceremony in which special prayers and rosaries are said, and blessings
asked. It might not be the city’s main tourist attraction, but there is
a very major novena that takes place in New York, every July for nine days,
from July 17-26. Merely a relic from the past, you say? Well, there is a relic,
but it is one anyone can go take a look at. It’s a piece of St. Anne’s
wrist, and it sits behind glass in a lovely ornate gold reliquary in the Shrine
of St. Anne, inside St. Jean Baptiste Roman Catholic Church on the Upper East
Side. (Apparently, it used to have some of the skin and flesh still attached
to the bone, but now it is just a bone fragment with a little label on it that
sort of looks like a cigar band.)

The relic first
came to New York in May of 1882, with a Monsignor Marquis who was on his way
to another church in Quebec. When word got out that it was in the city, apparently
such a vast multitude came out to venerate it that the priest was touched by
their devotion and promised to bring another relic of the saint. He petitioned
the Pope, who was so impressed by all the newspaper clippings that told of the
many miracles that had occurred in this New York parish and the people who had
been healed (I suppose even saints can use a press agent), that he authorized
the bringing of another relic. This one came to stay July 15, 1892. As they
tear down or close so many bits of New York City’s past, it’s reassuring
to know that parts of its history are still around, and they are not all in
museum settings.

Recently, I
have gotten the feeling that the Catholic Church has been trying to downplay
its connection to the saints, but the people at this church tell me most Catholics’
faith in the saints is as strong as ever. A very nice woman, Ellen, in the parish
office at St. Jean Baptiste, said that thousands come to the shrine every year,
especially during the novena in July.

of them are people who grew up in the city, and their parents used to bring
them and now they are bringing their children," she said. Father Paul Bernier,
an associate priest (and a man who once promised to give a Mass in Latin if
he could also give the sermon in Latin), said that he didn’t think the
people had ever stopped believing in the saints. But what about after Vatican
II, I asked, when the church took away some of the saints? (I always wondered
what folks did with their St. Christopher medals after that.)

canonization as a process only began 300 or 400 years ago," he said. "Before
that, it was just popular acclaim, whoever was well-known in certain regions."
(Rather like voting for Best Dressed in high school, I gather, or Most Likely
to Succeed.) "At one point, the church realized there were certain saints
that, historically, they knew nothing about." Those were the ones who didn’t
make the cut.

St. Anne, though,
is still around, and when I went to look at her shrine, I noticed that someone
had left flowers in a plastic water bottle, and there were little folded-up
pieces of paper with prayers written in pencil on them. At first, this seemed
a little out of place in such a beautiful, sacred place, but then I started
to appreciate these homey touches. It gave the shrine a more human, down-to-earth
air. This is a saint you can really talk to.

St. Jean Baptiste
Church, 184 E. 76th St. (Lexington Ave.), 288-5082,


of Heaven

On to less
spiritual, but no less weighty, matters–St. Jean’s does have a thrift
shop. You didn’t think I would haul my Catholic self all the way to 76th
St. for just the promise of salvation, did you? It’s a small, quiet shop,
tucked away downstairs on the side of the church. It seemed like any other church
thrift shop, nothing special, but hey, it’s there.

Among other
things, St. Anne is the patron of old clothes dealers, so I assume she oversees
the sales here. Surely, though, there must also be a saint for those of us looking
for bargains in secondhand shops, and if you find out who she is, say a little
prayer for me.

The thrift
shop is on 76th St., with the entrance downstairs. The phone number is 472-2853,