BOOMER, W.Va. — Only one church of the Roman Catholic faith in West Virginia is venerated as a "shrine"—a place of special devotion that contains a saint's relic.
But church officials at the diocese in Wheeling, West Virginia, are at a loss to explain how the shrine was designated and what sacred relic may be included.
It is known that Saint Anthony's Shrine, in the former mining town of Boomer, contains a relic of its patron saint, Saint Anthony of Padua (1195–1231 A.D.). Yet, little documentation can be found thus far to reveal its history, according to Jon-Erik Gilot, director of Archives & Records for the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston.
"All Roman Catholic churches contain some relic of a saint," Gilot says, "but in the case of a shrine, there must be something even more important contained therein, but we've not been able to find a record so far."
More than half of Christians are Roman Catholic, but its churches are relatively rare in southern West Virginia. Protestants from the British Isles settled the region in the early 19th century, while predominantly Roman Catholic immigrant populations arrived to mine coal at the turn of the 20th century.
Settled chiefly by Italian immigrants, Boomer is just such a community. However, little of the recorded history of the church at Boomer appears to exist. It is only from a church history produced in the 1960s that a single clue to the nature of the relic is provided, according to Gilot.
He noted that changes to the altar at Saint Anthony's provided some clues, citing a reference published in a history of nearby Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic Church in Montgomery. The type-written history referred to the shrine in 1956 as having been termed such before the relic was installed.
"The main altar was elevated on three steps to ensure better visibility. Two new side altars were added. Two of three gradines were removed, as well as a cylindrical tabernacle. Father McDonald explained that at last Saint Anthony's Shrine, which had been a shrine in name only, was now truly such. Beneath the statue of Saint Anthony, in a marble niche, there would repose a reliquary containing a first-class relic of Saint Anthony."
The word “relic” comes from the Latin relinquo, literally meaning “I leave” or “I abandon.” There are three classes of sacred relics. According to the Catholic Education Resource Center, the first class is a part of the saint’s body. The second class is a piece of the saint’s clothing or something used by the saint, while the third class is an object touched by a first-class relic.
Gilot points out that another brief and mysterious reference to the relic appeared in the same history of the Montgomery church several pages later:
"A rather unusual happening occurred while Father Schmitt was pastor. He noticed one morning that the relic of Saint Anthony was missing. It is normally reposed in an open niche beneath the statue of Saint Anthony. In a short time, the reliquary containing the relic was returned. Since that time, it has rested in a closed niche."
Coincidentally, Saint Anthony is venerated worldwide as the patron saint for recovering lost items and is credited with miracles involving lost people, things, and spiritual goods. The tradition is derived from an incident in which a book of psalms had been stolen from the saint by a novice monk who attempted to leave the Franciscan order.
When Anthony realized the psalter was missing, he prayed it would be found, after which the thief not only returned the book but returned to the order. The stolen book is said to be preserved in the Franciscan friary in Bologna.
Father Dominikus Baok, Societas Verbi Divini, the current pastor at Saint Anthony's, says he's not been able to determine the relic's origin either based on his inquiries of long-time congregants but hopes someone can come forward with information.
Saint Anthony's Shrine is at 2764 Midland Trail at Boomer, WV 25031. Mass at the church is traditionally offered at 11 a.m. Sundays.
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