UNIVERSITY VILLAGE — After word spread that the Holy Family Church would receive what is believed to be fragment of Jesus’ manger along with other holy relics for the Catholic church's 155th anniversary, what started as happy news for the community soon caught national attention.
"At first I thought it was a good story for the neighborhood," said Rev. Jeremiah Boland, of Holy Family Church. "Forty-eight hours later it was in the news briefs for every city."
Since the church recently announced it would be given what are believed to be a part of Jesus' manger, a fragment of the Virgin Mary's veil and a thread from St. Joseph's cloak, the story was picked up by Reuters ahead of the relics' unveiling on Sunday.
"The phone has been ringing off the hook from people wanting to see it," Boland said.
The ones who made a trek to the Near West Side church Sunday saw the rare items contained inside a small statue, called a crystal reliquary, on display during mass. The items were authenticated by the Vatican and given to Holy Family as a gift from neighboring church The Shrine of Our Lady of Pompeii.
Relics such as the ones Holy Family received, which were released by the Vatican in 1972, are based on "faith rather than scientific explanation," Boland said last week. But he said the fragment from Jesus' manger has "more authenticity" because it can be traced back to pilgrims who reportedly brought pieces of the crib from Jerusalem to Rome in the 5th Century.
The 155 year-old church, the second oldest in Chicago, has perhaps already been blessed to survive the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 as well as near-demolition in 1990.
Boland said the relics are another "source of healing in our neighborhood," which has seen a series of dramatic changes to its ethnic makeup.
“And that always creates the tension,” Boland said in an interview last week. “You know, you went from an Irish church to an Italian church. And then, you can’t go to mass because you don’t understand Italian. And that [change] could be very hard on people.”
"Hopefully it will continue to bring healing as we move into the future," Boland said Sunday.
Following mass, Boland took the reliquary around and blessed a church packed full of worshippers, many of whom had come just to see the items.
"I saw it on the TV, on the news," said Irene Fezulov, 60, who attended with her sister Sofia Kovacs, both from Wicker Park. "So I said, 'We need to go see it.'"
After mass, Kovacs was in tears.
"I'm emotional because my mom died around this time [a year ago]," Kovacs, 50, said. "She would have liked to go to a beautiful church like this."
The event also brought long-time parishioner John Latham, 93, back after some time away. Latham, who was an altar boy in the church in the early 1930s, also saw the news on TV and soon received a call from his daughter. He said the last time he attended mass at Holy Family was four or five years ago.
Latham, now living in suburban Crestwood, can attest to the transformation Holy Family has seen in the past century.
"The renovation of the church stands out in my memory," Latham said, referring to when Holy Family raised more than $1.5 million to save and repair the church in 1990. "As a former parishioner, I had said prayers that it would be reopened."
Boland has received so many requests that the parish has made a schedule of times the reliquary will be put on display, which will soon be published on the church's website.
After Kovacs learned of Holy Family's history, she said she had little doubt the relics were in the right place.
"Maybe it's meant to be here," Kovacs said. "Maybe it's meant to bring people closer to their faith."
Additional reporting by Chloe Riley