Cottonwood Heights • Imagine glimpsing the arm of Jesus’ grandmother or a robe from his father — well, stepfather.
Now 2,000 years later, you can — right here in Utah — as long as you have a believing heart.
A Greek Orthodox congregation in Cottonwood Heights recently acquired a bone fragment from Anna, the Virgin Mary’s mother, and, for good measure, picked up a swatch from Joseph’s robe as well.
The tiny relics — as they are known — rest side by side on a pedestal in the sanctuary of St. Anna Greek Orthodox Church, where worshippers can view, kiss and revere them.
Nestled together, the two hallowed remnants symbolize that congregation’s immense gratitude to St. Thomas More Catholic Church, which rents space to its spiritual cousins.
“It is divinely beautiful,” says the Rev. Anthony Savas, St. Anna’s priest, “for us to come together this way.”
Both Christian faiths see veneration of the early saints and martyrs as an essential component of their faith.
Like the Orthodox, the Roman Catholic Church has a “long and storied tradition of venerating the relics of the saints,” Savas says, which made the St. Joseph cloth an even more appropriate gift to express their gratitude.
And one that the Rev. John Evans of the Catholic parish “graciously accepted.”
From the earliest times, Christians preserved these bodies or parts of them, Savas says, sometimes even hiding them in their homes or sequestering them in cemeteries.
Indeed, services often were held near such graveyards.
Because of the Christian belief in the literal resurrection of Jesus from the dead, he says, these relics have “spiritual value to the faithful.”
Most of the items have been housed for centuries in Catholic churches in Italy, particularly in Rome, while others have been handed down in what was once called Constantinople (now Istanbul) by the Orthodox.
Anna’s bone fragment came from the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome, the priest says, where a cardinal prepared and distributed it in a 4-by-6 inch bronze “pyx” (or box), while Joseph’s fabric — classified as a “class 2” relic since it’s not from a body — was in an identical box and comes from Rome’s Church of St. Anastasia.
Both boxes have a wax seal, signed by a 19th-century Catholic cardinal, Savas says, and an unbroken thread, which help tie them to early Christians. Such continuity gives buyers confidence, he says, that what they have is not counterfeit.
“Our transcendent relationship with the sacred and the holy is actualized by the presence of authenticated relics,” Savas writes to his parish. “When the Saints afford us the opportunity to approach them in reverence and humility; through the veneration of their physical and sanctified remains, the heavens above and the world below are bridged together in harmonious song.”
Relics are “witnesses that our physical bodies are precious unto God,” the priest continues. “They are to be honored, revered, protected and adored. Even unto death, the physical attributes of man are still valued and cherished, for the sake of God's eternal glory.”
To have a permanent relic from Anna, the mission parish’s patron saint, Savas says, means worshippers can feel her presence and tenderness hovering over them like an adoring mother.
That this Orthodox community found such a sacred, albeit temporary, space inside a Catholic complex — the parish is raising money to obtain its own church — was sheer serendipity.
When Father John was assigned to minister at St. Thomas More in August 2014, the Catholic congregation had just finished building a massive center adjacent to its church.
“It was beautiful,” Evans says, “but came with a very large debt that had grown during the construction.”
The priest wondered how to meet the financial obligations and make the building pay for itself. He considered opening a full-time preschool or finding a renter.
As it happened, one of the parishioners was a real estate agent who worked for the same company as one of the Greek Orthodox members. They were friends.
The Catholic businessman discovered that the Orthodox parish was renting space in a commercial building in Midvale but was looking for a better solution.
St. Thomas More’s building had a large, unused storage space, which could easily be reconfigured into a place of worship — with chairs, an icon screen, an altar and even windows that could be covered to look like stained glass.
There also was a fellowship space the two could share for weddings, funerals and other gatherings.
Many times in the past, other faiths have rented buildings to Catholics, Evans says. Here was a chance to pay it forward.
The arrangement helps both parties.
When the Greek church finally moved in, Evans presented parish leaders with a framed photo of Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I.
In the shot, the Catholic pontiff is bowed before the global Orthodox leader, while the latter is bent over to kiss Francis’ head.
In return, the Greeks presented Evans with an icon of St. Peter, the first bishop of Rome, and St. Andrew, the first bishop of Byzantium. The two are embracing.
Like the relics, the two gifts hang side by side on the wall between St. Thomas More and St. Anna, Evans says, to symbolize the “filial love we have for each other.”