Ten years ago, on the solemnity of All Saints, the parish of the Sacred Heart in Croydon celebrated the return and deposition of a first-class relic of St Edmund of Abingdon (AD 1175–1240).
The relic, a piece of bone extracted from St Edmund’s forearm, was nearly lost with the demolition of its original home, St Edmund’s in Croydon. Like many relics from its time, it was sealed in a scroll, and when placed in the church, it was mounted in a brass box near the sanctuary.
When the church was being demolished so that East Ringwood and Croydon parishes could be merged, the box was taken down and stored beneath Sacred Heart parish with other items, many of which were going to be thrown out. It ended up being sent to Sydney when people were not able to identify it.
In Sydney, it was able to be identified as a relic of the 12th-century Archbishop of Canterbury and opponent of King Henry III.
Fr Leonard Size, who was parish priest of Sacred Heart Croydon at the time, did a lot of work determining the authenticity of the relic. It was in the care of the Clifford family for generations, a family who were ‘recusants’—secretly practising their Catholic faith despite the tyranny of King Henry VIII and the suppression of Catholicism that followed. Since the archives of the Clifford family were kept in Melbourne, Fr Size was able to accurately confirm that this was indeed the same relic.
The relic has since been placed in the church of the Sacred Heart, Croydon, in a permanent sealed container.
Before it became a parish church, Sacred Heart was a monastery under the care of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, opened by Archbishop Mannix in 1939.
The building is heritage-listed and remains a serene location, available for the public to visit and enjoy.
At the Pontifical Mass celebrating the return of the relic in 2013, Bishop Peter J Elliot preached on the importance of All Saints, the universal call to holiness and how the life of St Edmund can inspire us today.
The homily is reproduced here with permission.
When we celebrate the Solemnity of All Saints we are surrounded by the mighty army of apostles, martyrs and saints. The members of the Church triumphant in heaven are the sancti or ‘holy ones’, the beati or blessed ones, who are honoured in official lists and calendars, together with the multitude of unsung saints, those faithful ones who are known only to God. We are one with all these holy men, women and children, one in a mystical union that we profess in the creed, one in the communion of saints.
Through prayer and devotion, by seeking their intercession and celebrating their lives, following their example, and above all here in the Eucharistic Sacrifice, we become more aware of the unseen Church, those who have gone before us with the baptismal sign of faith. In first rank are all the saints and then the holy souls for whom we will pray in Requiem Masses tomorrow. But a vivid and ancient part of our devotion to saints is the cultus of holy relics.
The best human way of coming to understand this practice is to see a relic as a keepsake. People keep a lock of hair, a faded photo or a crumpled letter. They may look at it and touch it, they may kiss it, and so they remember someone in the family who died long ago, someone they loved, someone they still love across the chasm of death.
In our greater and wider family, the Church, a holy relic may be a fragment of a person’s mortal remains (a first-class relic) or a portion of something that belonged to them in this life, for example a piece of cloth taken from clothing (a second-class relic). A relic is therefore a material, tangible link with a fellow Christian who once walked this earth and who is now caught up into the glorious eternity of the risen Christ.
In the case of a first-class relic, such as we venerate tonight, the relic makes present the whole mortal frame of a saint. Therefore, this church effectively becomes another tomb of St Edmund.
You may recall the very successful recent visits to Australia of the relics of Saint Therese of Lisieux and Saint Francis Xavier. As the great crowds who gathered to venerate those saints can testify, relics intensify our awareness of the communion of saints. They help us remember heroic Christians with gratitude. They help us to strengthen our faith through following the example of a saint. These sacred fragments of a past life help us to look forward in hope of an eternal life.
Most here at this Mass will remember St Edmund’s Church, built at the heart of Croydon, by Fr William O’Driscoll and designed in clinker brick by Kevin Pethybridge, two men I am proud to have counted as friends. Fr O’Driscoll was determined to build a new Catholic church in Croydon. Well aware that many English people lived in the area, he gained the approval of Archbishop Mannix to name the church after St Edmund of Abingdon. It was around this time that this first-class relic of the saint was presented to him by Lord Lewis Clifford, 12th Baron of Chudleigh, Devon. He had married an Australian, Mary Knox, and they lived at Wonga Park. He only succeeded to the title on the death of his uncle in 1962 and he himself died two years later.
The Cliffords came from what is called a ‘recusant’ family, meaning that after the Reformation the family remained Catholics and refused to conform to the Church of England. They chose to maintain the secret and illegal practice of the Faith in their homes. Recusants or Papists were very courageous men and women, enduring severe persecution, even the risk of death. Across four centuries they had to pay heavy fines and were denied most civil rights.
The era known as the ‘Penal Times’ began under the tyrant Queen Elizabeth I and only came to an end when Parliament passed the Act of Catholic Emancipation in 1829. In this time of suffering and endurance, English Recusants shared the same fate as their more numerous Catholic brothers and sisters in Ireland, and the Catholic minorities in Scotland, Wales and the colonies.
The Recusants cherished the relics of saints and martyrs, particularly those of the men and women in their own community who were martyred in the Penal Times. They carefully preserved relics or rescued them from desecration. This explains why the Cliffords had the relic of St Edmund in their care. It is believed to have been retrieved from his tomb in the Abbey of Pontigny, France, in 1849.
However, this relic which came to rest in St Edmund’s church was removed when the church was demolished to be replaced by this new church of the Sacred Heart. The relic was lost and nearly discarded, but by divine providence, and I believe, through the prayers of the saint, it was retrieved and identified. Tonight St Edmund returns permanently to this church of the Sacred Heart. The rite of deposition is simply placing a relic in a secure and permanent shrine.
What do we know of St Edmund? He was born in 1175, the eldest son of a prosperous merchant in the town of Abingdon near Oxford. He was named Edmund after the martyr king because he was born on his feast day. After schooling in Abingdon, he was educated at the new university of Oxford, and then in the University of Paris. He returned to England and taught mathematics at Oxford, where he is credited with introducing the study of Aristotle. The college known as St Edmund’s Hall was later named after him. He then took up the study of theology and was ordained to the priesthood. His scholarship was recognised when he became the first Oxford Doctor of Divinity.
In 1222, Edmund left Oxford to work as a parish priest in the town of Caine and at the same time he became the treasurer of Salisbury Cathedral. During this ministry his holiness and administrative talents were soon noticed and in 1234 the Pope appointed him Archbishop of Canterbury, the Primate of the Catholic Church in England. Up to this time Edmund had followed the policies of the king, but now, like Saint Thomas Becket in the previous century, he strenuously defended the rights and freedom of the Church.
He did not get on with the overbearing King Henry III and had to appeal to the Pope for support in opposing the king and his friends. He suffered for taking this stand. The courageous Archbishop Edmund died in France in 1240 and was buried in Pontigny Abbey, the source of the relic that is being returned and enshrined in this church.
The feast day of Saint Edmund of Abingdon is 16 November. The collect for his Mass which I will say at the deposition of his relic is found the new version of the Roman Missal that we use in Australia. I hope that this parish will honour the saint on that day each year and that his relic will be accorded reverence and respect in the years to come.
In this Year of Faith, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council. Perhaps the greatest gift of the Council was a teaching known as the ‘universal call to holiness’, that all Christians, ‘in any state or walk of life’ are called to be holy (Lumen Gentium §40). Each of us ‘according to his or her own gifts and duties must steadfastly advance along the way of a living faith, which arouses hope and works through love’ (Lumen Gentium §41).
Responding to God’s call to holiness, we are inspired by the prayerfulness and courage of St Edmund. In these times facing challenges as he did, we are called to be men and women of prayer and courage, going forward, always forward, as members of a Pilgrim People. May Mary Queen of Saints and Saint Edmund of Abingdon pray for us on our journey towards eternal life. We hope and pray that one day, welcomed by the Risen Lord Jesus, we will rejoice with the holy ones and share with them the beatific vision of our loving God.