As I listened to one of our deacons during a parish tour for the inquiry group I was volunteering with at the time, an exciting historical tidbit hit my ears and I haven’t been able to let it go.

“We have a relic in our altar, but we don’t know who the relic belongs to because the records were destroyed in the Church fire.”

Our local parish is an old one, by California standards, originally built in 1886 to serve the blossoming immigrant community made up mostly of farmers from Ireland. The church burned to the ground in a fire on August 4, 1916.

According to an article scanned into the California Digital Newspaper Collection:

“St. Michael’s Roman Catholic Church, a planning hall and one residence are in ruins today as the result of a fire which yesterday threatened to sweep the city, and was only subdued with the aid of half a thousand volunteer fighters and the Oakland fire department. Father McKinnon, pastor of the church, at the risk of his life succeeded in saving the candlesticks and other adornments of the altar. The damage is estimated at $60,000.”

As the story goes, the fire also destroyed any records that pointed to the saint to whom the relic placed within the parish’s altar belonged.

Many Catholics may not be aware of this, but relics being permanently placed within or underneath parish altars is almost a given, especially for churches constructed prior to the Second Vatican Council.

In fact, in paragraph 302 of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) it states:

“The practice of placing relics of Saints, even those not Martyrs, under the altar to be dedicated is fittingly retained.”

We know for sure that our parish’s altar contains a relic, but whose is it?

With the parish records being destroyed, the obvious next place to look would be the diocese. The Diocese of Oakland, however, didn’t come into existence until 1962, leading me to think that the Archdiocese of San Francisco, established in 1853, might be my best bet.

Of course, concerns of those records being destroyed in the great 1906 San Francisco earthquake and subsequent fires immediately jumped to my mind.

Could the records possibly have survived all these years?

Would I finally be able to find the answer to my local parish’s biggest mystery?

I put in a call to the Archdiocese of San Francisco and got an opportunity to speak with the official archivist.

She shared that the parish records were actually split when the Diocese of Oakland was created, and any information on parish history would reside in the archives there. She also pointed out that while these parish archives could contain news clippings and historical pictures, they more typically included nothing more than property and financial documents.

She closed the call by noting, “In my two years working as an archivist for the Archdiocese, this question about relics in various altars has come up a few times. I’ve never seen it turn out with the mystery being solved. So…good luck!”

While I most definitely earned my Catholic Nerd badge by taking time out of my day to speak with a real life Catholic archivist, I was no closer to my answer.

I left a voicemail for the archivist at the Diocese of Oakland, and patiently waited by the phone with anxious anticipation.

Would this archivist have the information I’d been searching for? Would she reveal the saint behind the mysterious relic at my parish? Or would I find out this final lead was nothing more than another dead end?

I never got the chance to find out.

Understanding that the archivist at my local diocese most likely wears about nine different hats, while probably only getting paid the salary of someone wearing half of a hat, I accepted the lack of a return phone call.

Maybe this was God’s way of letting me know I was never meant to find the answer to the question I’d been hunting down after all.

Will the parishioners of St. Michael’s ever learn the identity behind the relic placed in our beloved altar?

Probably not.

And maybe it’s a good lesson for me that it’s alright to accept that some things are a mystery, and that’s okay.

St. Anonymous, pray for us.


Tommy Tighe is a Catholic husband and father of four boys. You can find out more about him at CatholicHipster.com.