MARIA STEIN, Ohio (AP) -- The sealed, glass-paneled box had been built into an altar and left unopened for more than 100 years. Soot from candles clouded the view of the inside.
Two Roman Catholic nuns, each standing at an end, slipped keys into separate locks, simultaneously turning them to reveal the contents of the box: bones encased in wax. In full view were the remains of St. Victoria, a young maiden martyred in the third century, buried in the catacombs of Rome and brought to Ohio in 1845.
''For the first time in our lifetimes, we could look down on and into the box. You saw a maiden with the view of death in her face,'' said Sister Barbara Ann Hoying, director of the Shrine of the Holy Relics.
The Roman Catholic Church says the chapel in this western Ohio village houses one of the nation's largest collection of objects -- many of them bone fragments -- associated with saints and martyrs.
Visited by thousands annually, the shrine is nearing completion of a a renovation that cost more than $1.5 million and has taken more than a year.
It involved cataloguing and cleaning each of the shrine's 947 relics -- a collection surpassed in the United States only by St. Anthony's chapel in Pittsburgh, which has more than 5,000, Hoying said.
The bones of St. Cruser are among the relics from saints and martyrs at the Shrine of the Holy Relics in Maria Stein, Ohio, Jan. 22, 2003. The bones are individually sealed with wax over red chord and authenticated by a church authority.
AP Photo/Al Behrman
The renovations included cleaning the box that houses St. Victoria's remains, which had been on display at the shrine's altar since 1892.
Sister Regina Albers, the shrine's curator, said other relics housed there include what the church believes to be a splinter from Jesus' cross, a thorn from his crucifixion crown, pieces of wood from his crib and the Last Supper table.
Many of the relics were brought here in 1875. A Milwaukee priest obtained the collection in Rome at a time the church was eager to prevent the relics from being stolen and sold by bandits.
The priest chose to take the relics to Maria Stein because of its rural setting and the security provided by the Sisters of the Precious Blood's round-the-clock devotions. The sisters maintained a 24-hour-a-day vigil at the shrine until the 1970s, when there were no longer enough of them to continue.
Today, there are five nuns at the shrine, about half the number there were in the '70s.
The church approves of homage being paid to relics believed by Catholics -- with reasonable probability -- to be genuine. Some people feel the relics put them in the presence of saints, who carry their prayers to God.
Over the centuries, the church verified the authenticity of the relics at the shrine, and each is sealed in a glass container and has an identifying document.
The renovation, funded by the Sisters of the Precious Blood and private donations, resulted in the relics being out of the public eye for nearly 10 months.
With permission from the Vatican, they were removed from their glass containers and catalogued. The containers were transported to Wisconsin so craftsmen specializing in restoring historic churches and buildings could clean and reseal the containers, Hoying said.
Some tour and school groups stayed away from the shrine for much of last year because the relics were not on display. While attendance was down from previous years, about 15,000 visitors came anyway.
The shrine's register reveals visitors from near and far -- from nearby Columbus to Boston, Atlanta, Anchorage and even the Philippines.
The renovation is expected to be completed by early March after new and refurbished windows are installed.
But the most important work is already complete: The nuns are now able to publicly display all of the relics -- not just half of them as in years past.
''The reasons most visitors come, especially from a distance, are for seeing and praying in the presence of those relics,'' Hoying said. ''One of the ways to add emphasis to prayer is to go to a sacred place, to make a pilgrimage.''
The former convent that houses the shrine is a three-story red brick structure with domes topped by white stone crosses and a steeple with a golden cross. A hand-carved wooden altar has niches containing the relics, which surround a forest of flickering red candles.
John Peck, a 22-year-old seminary student from Columbus, recently visited for the first time.
''For us Catholics, these relics are objects that connect us to those who have lived lives of faith before us,'' Peck said. ''It's a very moving experience.''
Roman Catholic theologian Mike Duricy of the University of Dayton said shrines and pilgrimages weathered reforms in the Catholic church in the 1950s and '60s, with the church affirming their value. He said the shrines remain popular because of yearning for physical aspects of religion.
''You don't just want to feel edified, but you want to see something,'' he said. ''These are physical objects. A lot of the people that are amenable to shrines and pilgrimages really believe you could see or hear something, and they go to a lot of these places hoping they do.''
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