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Harvard keeps saint relic, despite returning other items

Catholic leader says Harvard should give to a church

Harvard University plans to keep its relic of St. Sebastian, a martyr, despite returning other human remains and items of cultural significance.

A Catholic leader says the university should provide the relic to a local church or other proper place.

The university’s Houghton Library continues to hold onto its relic of St. Sebastian (depicted in the painting). A relic is a piece of a saint, something he owned, or something he touched. Catholics use relics in their altars and in other holy places.

The relic “is held in secure library stacks. As with all special collections, the item does not circulate and may only be used for research in a secure reading room,” Director of Communications Kerry Conley told The College Fix via email.

“Whether or not it contains human remains is a subject for the Committee to investigate further,” she also said.

The same library recently announced plans to try to identify the source of human skin that was used on the binding of a book in its collections.

While Conley said the committee on repatriation needs to investigate if the relic is of human remains, it appears to have already ruled on that issue.

The library has a “bone fragment purportedly of Saint Sebastian (ca. 3rd century) in a medallion reliquary,” according to the university’s report from its “Steering Committee on Human Remains in University Museum Collections.”

The steering committee aimed to “address research, community consultation, memorialization, possible repatriation, burial or reburial, and other care considerations.”

Following the report, “Harvard University has agreed to return the remains of 19 people thought to be enslaved and thousands of Native Americans from their museum collection to their respective descendants,” according to The Daily Pennsylvanian. The campus Peabody Museum will also “provide travel funding for Tribal representatives to come to the museum for the physical repatriation of ancestors and associated funerary belongings.”

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The Archdiocese of Boston initially said it would provide comments to The Fix, but communications director Terry Donilon has not provided further comments in nearly a month.

The Fix reached out to several local churches, including Harvard’s Catholic chapel on if they’d want the relic. Neither provided comments in the past month.

The leader of the Massachusetts-based Catholic Action League urged the university to find a better place for the relic.

“The private possession of relics was a common practice in the past,” Executive Director C.J. Doyle told The Fix via email. “In the case of the relic of Saint Sebastian in Harvard University’s Houghton Library, there is no evidence that the University acquired it through fraud or theft, or used it, illicitly, for a commercial or sacrilegious purpose.”

“Nonetheless, the relic of a martyr is a sacred object, worthy of veneration, not a mere historical artifact, of antiquarian interest,” Doyle said. “The appropriate location for a relic of Saint Sebastian is a Catholic church, chapel or shrine, not the library of a secular university.”

“Harvard should do the right thing and donate it to a local Catholic church.”

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IMAGE: Lodovico Carracci/Public Domain

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About the Author
Mary Noble -- Christendom College.