Chance to venerate relics of St. Maria Goretti called ‘gift of lifetime’

Tour stops include Madison and Elm Grove in Wisconsin

CHICAGO — For Mia Rocha, the opportunity to greet the relics of St. Maria Goretti at Chicago’s St. John Cantius Church Oct. 12 was the gift of a lifetime.

Worshippers venerate the relics of St. Maria Goretti at St. John Cantius Church in Chicago Oct. 12. The major relics, which are virtually all of the skeletal remains of the saint, known as the "patroness of purity," are on a U.S. "pilgrimage of mercy" this fall that will go to nearly 20 states. (CNS photo | Karen Callaway, Catholic New World)

Worshippers venerate the relics of St. Maria Goretti at St. John Cantius Church in Chicago Oct. 12. The major relics, which are virtually all of the skeletal remains of the saint, known as the “patroness of purity,” are on a U.S. “pilgrimage of mercy” this fall that will go to nearly 20 states. (CNS photo | Karen Callaway, Catholic New World)

Rocha, 20, is a parishioner at St. John Cantius and chose St. Maria Goretti as her patron for confirmation.

“This is very personal for me,” said Rocha. “I’m hoping to spend all day here.”

The major relics of the child saint — nearly her entire skeleton, encased in a wax statue and enclosed in a glass casket — arrived at St. John Cantius escorted by Chicago and Illinois state police and greeted by hundreds of faithful who waited on the church steps.

The relics merited the escort because St. Maria Goretti is considered “a deputy head of state of the Vatican” and is being sent as a special envoy by Pope Francis for the upcoming Year of Mercy. In addition, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security assigned six agents to safeguard her relics and the Chicago Police Honor Guard stood by them that evening.

After she was carried inside the church, members of the Canons Regular of St. John Cantius sang lauds as the congregation swelled. The church reported “record crowds” at the 7:30 p.m. Mass celebrated by Auxiliary Bishop Joseph N. Perry of Chicago.

The relics remained in the church until 6 a.m. Oct. 13, when they were transferred to St. John Vianney Church in suburban Northlake. They were taken to St. Francis of Assisi Church in suburban Orland Park for veneration Oct. 14 and then to St. Mary Immaculate Church in Plainfield Oct. 15.

The stops were part of a 25-diocese, 20-state U.S. “Pilgrimage of Mercy,” said Fr. Carlos Martins, a Companion of the Cross priest, who is the pilgrimage director. Timed to fall just before the opening of the Year of Mercy Dec. 8, Martins said he wants the tour to bring people awareness of St. Maria’s story of forgiveness.

Fr. Martins shared that story in his homily at the morning Mass: how the 11-year-old Maria was running the household while her mother worked in the fields after her father died; how her 19-year-old neighbor Alessandro Serenelli brutally stabbed her 14 times when she would not give up her virginity to him; how she died nearly a day later from peritonitis, having endured surgery aimed at stopping internal bleeding without anesthetics, how she said on her deathbed, “I forgive Alessandro Serenelli and want him with me in heaven forever.”

Serenelli, however, rejected her forgiveness and was imprisoned. Six years later, she appeared to him in a dream and gave him 14 white lilies, one for each stab wound, and he repented.

Now, Fr. Martins said, he believes that Serenelli will one day also be recognized as a saint, for his heroic act of accepting the forgiveness of Maria Goretti and of God, and for forgiving himself.

“He had to live 62 years after committing that terrible crime, and the world would never let him forget it,” Father Martins said.

Serenelli ended his days as a Capuchin Franciscan brother.

While St. Maria Goretti never left Italy as a child, and this is the first visit of her relics to the United States, she has American connections. After she died, her mother could not work the fields and care for her five younger children, so St. Maria Goretti’s three brothers were sent to the United States to be adopted. Two lived to adulthood and their descendants are spread across the nation.

Also, American troops landed near her hometown during World War II, using the tower of what is now St. Maria Gioretti’s basilica in Nettuno, Italy, to navigate. They taught the local boys to play baseball, and it remains more popular than soccer there.

St. Maria Goretti, who died in 1902, is very much a modern saint, Fr. Martins said. The youngest canonized Catholic saint, she is the only one whose mother was able to attend her canonization Mass. By the time she was canonized in 1950, devotion to her was so widespread that the Mass had to be celebrated in St. Peter’s Square because St. Peter’s Basilica was too small.

Nicole DeRoche, a parishioner at St. Clement, said she came to pay her respects because she’s known about St. Maria Goretti since she was in grade school at Everest Academy in Lemont.

“I grew up knowing about her,” said DeRoche, who got up early to welcome the relics on her way to work.

Mark Holterman of Peoria said he heard about the relics’ pilgrimage when he attended Mass at St. John Cantius Oct.11, and made time to stop before returning home.

“I know her story very well,” Holterman told the Catholic New World, Chicago’s archdiocesan newspaper. “And it’s just the example we need in this day and age when kids have so many bad choices.”

Bridget Ney, who teaches an eighth-grade religious education class at St. Cecilia Parish in Mount Prospect, teared up when the casket carrying St. Maria’s relics was removed from the van and carried up the church steps by a police honor guard.

“I’ve loved St. Maria Goretti since I was a girl,” she said. “She was kind and caring, and as poor as her family was, she thought of others first.”

Kathleen Fayard, from St. Mary Parish in Lake Forest, and her mother, Diane Fayard, from St. Pascal Parish, came together to St. John Cantius to welcome the relics.

Kathleen Fayard said the event was festive and celebratory.

“It was almost like waiting for a concert,” she said. “This is one of our celebrities,” Diane Fayard added.

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Editor’s note: A full schedule for the relics tour can be found at http://mariagoretti.com.

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Martin is a staff writer at the Catholic New World, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Chicago.