Saints at St. Martin believed to be ancient Roman martyrs

Record Assistant Editor

Until now, what little anyone knew about the skeletal remains of two saints displayed at St. Martin of Tours Church was largely passed down orally.

Archaeologist Philip DiBlasi and four students from the University of Louisville hope to learn more about the lives of these saints during an examination of the remains that began late last month.

One thing seems certain, the martyrs arrived in Louisville in the early 20th century.

The cranium of St. Bonosa.

“We believe they were initially exhumed in 1700,” said Father Fred Klotter, pastor of St. Martin, during an interview at the parish last Friday. According to oral history — and some that’s been recorded — he believes Sts. Bonosa and Magnus were martyred about 1700 to 1800 years ago in Rome.

“Bonosa was a young Christian woman” — a Roman virgin, so the story goes — “but she was martyred for her faith,” Father Klotter said. “Magnus was a centurion — a leader of about 100 legionnaires — who witnessed Bonosa’s martyrdom.”

St. Magnus was so moved by her willingness to die for her faith that he became a Christian, the story says.

The time of their martyrdom is unclear. The date 308 is etched into the marble top of St. Magnus’ sarcophagus. And the date 207 appears in a brief history printed in a book celebrating the centennial of St. Martin parish in 1953.

This side altar at St. Martin of Tours Church in downtown Louisville held the remains of St. Magnus. After repairs are made, the remains of the saint will be returned to the altar.

That book says both saints died along with 15,000 others under the rule of Diocletian, though his rule didn’t begin until 284 and ended in 305. This account uses the spelling “Bonoza.”

An account of their history that appeared in the Courier-Journal Magazine in 1964 tells of the martyrdom of 50 Christians who were converted by St. Bonosa and suggests St. Magnus was among them. This was said to have been done in 274 under the rule of Septimius Severus, though he died in 211. The story cites unnamed books from Bellarmine University’s library.

Father Klotter said it’s believed the martyrs were interred in catacombs after their deaths and later exhumed to be venerated as relics at a Cistercian Monastery of nuns in Anagni, Italy. According to the story, they remained there until the late 19th century when the monastery was seized by the Italian government.

According to Father Klotter and the centennial book, the pastor of St. Martin at the time, Monsignor Francis Zabler, arranged for the relics to be brought to the United States with the permission of Pope Leo XIII. They were installed at St. Martin in February 1902, probably on Feb. 10, he said.

DiBlasi, the archaeologist, said he believes the bones were dismantled prior to shipping and packed in several pouches, which were opened at St. Martin. It appears the parish opened the bags to arrange the remains, he said, but ultimately rewrapped them in cotton batting and muslin.

The parish also made garments — including deep purple robes and delicate shoes — which they placed on the remains along with crowns for their heads.

The batting, muslin and garments have deteriorated severely after years under fluorescent lights which illuminated the reliquaries. These things have been respectfully treated and, rather than throwing them away, they will be burned as holy objects, Father Klotter said.

While considered to be holy, these items don’t rise to the level of relics today.

“A relic is a bodily remain of a saint or a martyr,” Father Klotter explained during the interview last week. “That’s a first-class relic. A second-class relic is some object or clothing from the saint. In the middle ages, a church or a town that possessed relics of a saint would ensure that saint’s protection.”

Formerly, church altars were required to hold a relic. But that’s no longer the case, he said. And first-class relics today, he said, must be an identifiable part of the remains.

They are intended “to aid in prayer and to be treated with great respect,” he added.

The investigation into the saints was prompted in part by the need for repairs in St. Martin’s side altars, where the relics were encased.

As the investigation into the saints continues, work on the side altars has begun, too. Workers discovered another little interesting piece of history during their repair work. At least part of the sanctuary floor is supported by street car rails.

When DiBlasi’s investigation and the repair work on the altars are complete, the relics will be returned to their places in the side altars of the church with new glass and lighting.

“We have two women at the parish who make wedding gowns, so they are going to recreate the gowns which they were laid in,” said Father Klotter.

They will be returned to their original places — St. Bonosa to the altar’s left and St. Magnus to the altar’s right. And, as before, they will face the altar. They will also be accompanied by booklets describing their histories.

A story about the examination by archaeologist Philip DiBlasi can be found here.

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