Relics of St. Nicholas Enshrined in a Queens Church

by Edward B. Fiske

From The New York Times, December 6, page 49

The New York Times
Dec. 6, 1972

Relics of St. Nicholas, the historical prototype of Santa Claus, were enshrined yesterday in a Greek Orthodox church in Queens.

The ceremony, led by the Most Rev. Francis Mugavero, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Brooklyn, and Archbishop Iakovos, the Greek Orthddox Primate of North and South America, was described as one more sign of the healing of the 900-year-old breach between Eastern and Western Christians.

It also pointed up the close historical and cultural ties between New York City and the fourth-century saint.

St. Nicholas was the patron saint of New Amsterdam. The first Dutch ship to reach the city’s shores carried his figurehead. One legend even holds that it was a vision of St. Nicholas that led the new settlers to buy Manhattan Island from the Indians.

The popular folk hero, whose feast day is today, was Bishop of Myra in Asia Minor in the fourth century. Among the feats attributed to him were the liberation of three innocent youths condemned to death and the provision of dowries for three poor girls.

Following the great East-West schism of A.D. 1054, the body of St. Nicholas was taken to Ban in Italy by Western Christians. Legends of his good works, combined with German folklore, soon evolved into the figure known in English-speaking countries as Santa Claus.

Most Relics in Bari

Most of the existing relics of St. Nicholas remain sealed in a vault in Bari. However, the Most Rev. Enrico Nicodemo, Catholic Bishop of Bari, has donated a portion of them to the Greek Orthodox community in the United States.

Last night, the relics, encased in a small gold reliquary fashioned for them in Athens, were enshrined at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, at 196th Street and Northern Boulevard in Flushing. They will rest in a case under a 17th-century icon of the saint, probably from Rumania, with votive candles on either side.

Importance of Relics

The Rev. Constantine E. Volaitis, pastor of the church, said that the relics consisted of a fragment of the casket in which the saint’s body had been transported to Bari, tiny fragments of his skull resting on cotton, and a vial of holy myrrh.

“One of the qualities of sainthood is that sweet-smelling myrrh sometimes exudes from the remains after death,” he explained.

Bishop Mugavero, who presented the relics to the Greek Orthodox community, said that the gift was intended as “another indication of the new openness between the Eastern and Latin churches and of our mutual desire to be more united in Christ.”

In another ecumenical gesture, the Right Rev. Richard B. Martin, Suffragan Episcopal Bishop of Long Island, also took part in the rite.

Father Volaitis noted that the physical remains of saints were important to Greek Orthodox faith and worship.

“They provide a close link and a sense of personal intimacy with the saints,” he said. “They also often have miraculous healing powers.”

Three years ago, in the course of revising the calendar of saints, the Vatican demoted St. Nicholas from the status of obligatory to voluntary veneration. Among Orthodox Christians, though, he remains, like Mary and St. John the Baptist, a major figure.

Father Volaitis also observed that, in the wake of the historic meetings between Pope Paul VI and Athenagorus I, the late Ecumenical Patriarch in Istanbul, the Roman Catholic Church had given Orthodox churches a number of relics of saints important to Eastern liturgy.

“The relics of St. Andrew have been returned to the cathedral at Patras in Greece,” he said. “The head of the Apostle Titus was moved from Venice to Crete, and St. Isidore has been returned to the cathedral at Chios in Greece.”

St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Shrine Church, Flushing, Queens, New York


From The New York Times Archives, December 6, 1972.

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