Story by Tara Jones
From Russian nesting dolls and beads to kitchen utensils and leaves, a traditional nativity can be represented in many ways.
For the past five years, the Maria Stein Shrine of the Holy Relics has been home to some of the most unique nativities.
The shrine has about 1,500 nativities in its collection, largely with the help of Tim and Katheleen Nealeigh, said Matt Hess, director of hospitality and ministry.
Each year, the exhibit features around 50 nativities all under a common theme. Last year’s theme was “Modern Takes on a Timeless Theme,” topped off by one nativity with Joseph taking a Christmas selfie and the three kings riding Segways with Amazon boxes in hand. This year’s exhibit is set to go up at the beginning of December. Each exhibit runs through Epiphany, which is Jan. 6.
“We will pick a topic but let (the Nealeighs) go with what they know because they know the collection,” Hess explained.
One of Hess’ favorite nativities exemplifies Tim’s commitment to finding unique pieces since his first in 1965.
“There was a nativity that I loved last year, and it was leaf people,” Hess recalled. “I asked Tim how he got one of these and he said there was an artist that made leaf people and asked him to make a leaf Mary, a leaf Joseph, some leaf sheep and a leaf baby. So sometimes he will commission these pieces from artisans that make certain styles of figurines.”
The collection has also grown a lot more recently with the help of online marketplaces.
Susie Bergman, marketing coordinator for the shrine, said those pieces that stand out aren’t all just for show. Her favorite continues to be one made of Russian nesting dolls.
“They’re meant to draw attention to the way different cultures view the nativity and artistic takes on them, to show a side that’s different than what we know around here with the traditional nativity scene,” Bergman said. “With a collection of over 1,500 various forms of medium and takes and inspiration on it, we know you can step outside of the traditional for just a moment, enter open to it, and embrace it and still know it’s still an interpretation.”
Hess said it’s an important reminder each year that Christ is for everybody.
“He’s not just this blond-haired, blue-eyed little baby,” he said. “He speaks to all different backgrounds, religions and all different cultures.”
Come one, come all
Though the holidays are generally the busiest time, The Maria Stein Shrine of the Holy Relics is recognized as an Ohio Historical Site and is open year-round for anyone to tour. The shrine is celebrating the 175th anniversary of The Sisters of the Precious Blood coming to the United States.
“We are, at the end of the day, a historical religious tourist destination,” Bergman explained. “Even if you’re not a Catholic or of Catholic faith, the historical aspect of the building and the sisters’ lives and how all of this came to be, a lot of people do find fascinating and interesting.”
The shrine holds roughly 1,200 relics of about 850 individuals, making for the second largest collection of fully documented relics on permanent display in the United States. The largest display of 5,000 relics is located at St. Anthony’s Chapel in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Staff-guided tours are available for groups of 10 or more, but when the shrine is open, all areas are open to the public to experience.
Located just inside the main entrance are pamphlets with a map of 60 stops throughout the 21-acre grounds, which include the upstairs museum, Adoration Chapel and Relic Chapel.
For those wanting to learn more about the relics, there is a virtual audio tour available on its website through a mobile device. There are also iPads set up throughout the displays for further interactive learning on specific relics.
What is a relic?
Maria Stein Shrine’s possession of relics are all classified as first-class, which means they are tiny pieces of the bones of canonized saints. Second-class relics are objects worn or used by the saints and third-class are objects that have been touched to a first- or second-class relic.
The largest number of relics in their collection belonged to Father Francis de Sales Brunner, who brought the Missionaries and Sisters of the Precious Blood to Ohio in 1840. Father J.M. Gartner placed an additional 175 relics in the hands of the Sisters in 1875, developing the Shrine of the Holy Relics.
The veneration of saints began with a tradition of building churches over their graves, according to the shrine. Soon, churches had been erected at every saint gravesite, so the preservation of pieces of remains began, creating what we now refer to as relics.
The relics themselves, however, don’t belong to the shrine.
“Relics are interesting in that we don’t officially own them. Relics are part of the patrimony of the church, and we are custodians of them,” Hess said. “We take care of them and they are under the control of one of the offices in Rome in the Vatican. We have to report to the Vatican what is here, so they are aware of who we all have. Generally, to move something like this collection or major pieces, we would have to go through Rome to do it officially and not break Canon Law, which forbids the selling of relics.”
Every relic must have a document to prove authentication for public display, Hess explained. The document should have an embossed seal that matches a wax seal on the back of the relic, which is held together with a red thread.
“In order for us to put a relic out, it has to have unbroken thread, unbroken and matching seal with the document, and of course, the name has to line up, too,” Hess said.
Canon Law requires all relics without a document to be buried and documents without a matching relic are burned.
“We want people to understand how rare it is to have this in their backyards, and also that any and all are welcome,” Bergman explained.
Plan your visit
Maria Stein Shrine of the Holy Relics
2291 St. Johns Road, Maria Stein
419-925-4532 or email@example.com
Visit mariasteinshrine.org for shrine, museum and gift shop hours as well as a liturgical schedule and special events.
Shrine, museum and gift shop hours
Monday through Thursday: 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Friday and Saturday: 9:30 a.m. to 4 pm.
Sunday: Noon to 4 p.m.
Closed major holidays
Mid-day prayer: 11:45 a.m. Monday through Friday
Eucharistic Adoration: 1 to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday
Mass: Saturday 10 a.m., confession 9:30 a.m.