OCONTO FALLS — When St. Anthony Parish made the decision to search for a first-class relic of St. Anthony of Padua, it seemed as though Indiana Jones himself would be needed to find such a rare piece.
However, what started as an international search ended where no one in Oconto Falls thought it would: in a basement a mere 32 miles away, a far cry from the relic’s original home in Italy.
“July of last year, I attended a funeral of a person I knew in Green Bay at SS. Peter and Paul Church,” said J.R. Ryczkowski of St. Anthony Parish. “In the basement of the church, there was a very large trophy case with a lot of church artifacts in it. For some reason I was drawn to that very small reliquary way at the bottom and way in the back of all the other things. I saw the name on it, and it was like, ‘That’s (St. Anthony). That’s what I’ve been looking for. Now what do I do?’”
Ryczkowski and St. Anthony School Principal Alex Wolf first discussed the possibility of acquiring a relic about 18 months ago. After presenting the idea to their pastor, Fr. Joel Sember, the team decided to move ahead with the search.
“We wanted a piece of St. Anthony in some capacity, because we didn’t have one,” Wolf said. “The only way you can find one is if one has officially been issued, or it’s given, or you have to go straight to the source where the remains are, and the Franciscans would have to get you a procured one from his remains.”
Because Ryczkowski and Wolf were seeking a first-class relic, which is an actual piece of the saint’s bodily remains, such as bones, blood or hair, they knew they had their work cut out for them. To get started, Wolf contacted shrine officials in Padua with a letter written in Italian. He received a response six months later with instructions and guidelines.
“To acquire a relic formally … it’s quite a ritual to go through,” Wolf said. “The remains of the saint are obviously heavily guarded. That’s why relics have been issued over the course of hundreds of years, but those that are out there are usually in shrines somewhere.”
Meanwhile, Ryczkowski continued on with his regular work at the parish, teaching religious education classes and helping to raise funds for church. Those he told about the relic wished him luck but warned of the difficulty of acquiring such a piece.
Luckily, those people hadn’t considered the power of the Patron Saint of Lost Things, who was just waiting to be found when Ryczkowski traveled to Green Bay for the funeral.
“St. Anthony was essentially lost in the basement of SS. Peter and Paul,” Ryczkowski said. “I think St. Anthony brought me there. So the question is: Did I find him, or did he find me in the basement?”
The relic is a small fragment of bone housed in a gold reliquary. The bone is protected by crystal in a round case at the center of the reliquary. It is bound with special red ribbon and sealed with wax. Wolf said they don’t know how the relic arrived in Green Bay or the United States, but its documentation states it was authenticated June 25, 1962.
Stunned by the unexpected discovery, Ryczkowski considered his next move. Eventually, he was directed to Michael Poradek, Divine Worship director and master of ceremonies for the Diocese of Green Bay. The pair spoke about methods for acquiring the relic for St. Anthony Parish, and Poradek said he would contact Franciscan Fr. Anthony Cirignani, pastor of SS. Peter and Paul Parish, to ask about the relic.
Poradek’s call yielded a terrific outcome.
“Fr. Tony was more than happy to present it to the school as a gift along with the certification,” Poradek said. “It’s a nice opportunity for (St. Anthony) and the school, especially for the kids to see the relic and to be able to pray with the relic and remember the saint.”
Upon his next visit to St. Anthony, Poradek surprised Ryczkowski with the relic. Ryczkowski said he was thrilled.
“Michael (Poradek) passed on the fact that Fr. Tony, in the true Franciscan spirit of giving, said, ‘St. Anthony belongs in a church that bears his name,’” Ryczkowski said. “Without Fr. Tony’s willingness, none of this would have happened. He was just so giving. I believe it’s St. Anthony at work.”
Plans for the relic’s permanent placement at St. Anthony, as well as an official welcoming, are still in the works. The relic is currently on the altar of the church, visible to all who visit. Ryczkowski said the hope is to display the official documentation with the relic.
Poradek, who attended St. Anthony School himself, said it’s nice for all parishes to have a relic of their patron saint.
“It reminds people that the saint was a real, living person who walked the earth with us and lived an exemplary life for sainthood, which we’re all called to do,” Poradek said.
As for Ryczkowski and St. Anthony, they couldn’t help but be reminded of a little poem: “Tony, Tony, look around. Something’s lost. It must be found.”
“Everything just came together,” Ryczkowski said. “Alex (Wolf) contacted the Franciscans in Padua, and (a relic) was in East Green Bay. It was already here. We just needed to find it.”