Can a drop of blood from John Paul II save a Camden church?

A relic of Pope John Paul II, to be declared a saint Sunday, is at St. Joseph's in Camden. The pastor hopes it will bring blessings to the Polish parish.
A relic of Pope John Paul II, to be declared a saint Sunday, is at St. Joseph's in Camden. The pastor hopes it will bring blessings to the Polish parish. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 26, 2014

Could a drop of Pope John Paul II's blood cure what ails St. Joseph's Parish in Camden?

The Rev. Pavel Kryszkiewicz hopes so.

Kryszkiewicz (pronounced kris-KAY-vich) is a practical man. He knows those leaks in the roof won't fix themselves.

But the Polish-born pastor believes in miracles, too.

So perhaps - just perhaps - that dot of blood encased in a glass-and-brass cylinder on the St. Joseph's altar could be the draw that fills his mostly empty pews.

On Sunday, in Rome, Pope Francis will formally declare John Paul a saint of the Catholic Church.

And at that moment, the blood that sits in St. Joseph's sanctuary will become a little more special to Catholics who venerate their faith's holiest men and women.

"Relics are a part of Catholic teaching," Kryszkiewicz said last week. "The relic is the sign of a physical presence of someone who was important and a connection to that person's holiness and spirituality."

The 49-year-old pastor, who has led the parish since 2009, requested the relic last year from Cardinal Stanislas Dziwisz of Krakow, Poland, John Paul's close friend and secretary during his 26-year pontificate.

Dziwisz presented it to him during a visit to Krakow in December.

Kryszkiewicz hopes that as devotion to the new St. John Paul II grows, St. Joseph's could become a shrine, even a minor basilica, in his honor, and that John Paul's devotees would make pilgrimages here.

"This is a first-class relic," Kryszkiewicz said, gesturing toward the small, gilded reliquary atop the altar.

First-class relics, he explained, contain something of the physical body - bone or blood or hair - of the person they memorialize.

He lifted the reliquary, which features curved brass blades radiating from its center, and pulled the case from it.

Visible through its two-inch glass face was a small ring of white daisy petals made of cloth. At its center was a 10-millimeter rectangle of buff-colored fabric on which a drop of the pontiff's blood had been placed.

"Ex sanguine beati Joannis Pauli Papae II," reads its tiny inscription: "Blood from Blessed Pope John Paul II."

"Soon it will be sancti," Kryszkiewicz said, referring to the pontiff's elevation Sunday from "blessed," or beati, status to sancti, or saint.

The preservation of sacred mementos dates back to Christianity's first centuries, when public admiration for a holy person - originally martyrs - accorded them status as a saint and worthy of veneration.

"By the fourth century, a cult of saints and relics had become well-established," he said. "People could have physical connection with a holy person."

In his office, Kryszkiewicz showed off a collection of about 85 other relic cases amassed by previous pastors. One contains a chip of bone purporting to be from the sixth-century St. Gregory the Great. Another is a "third-class" relic: a piece of cloth touched to the relics of St. Therese of the Child of Jesus.

And there is a bone chip said to have belonged to St. Philomena, who the Vatican decided in the 1960s was fictional and removed from its roster, or canon, of saints.

It could be said that St. Joseph's is a relic, too. The cathedral-size church was founded in 1892 to serve a Polish-immigrant population long since scattered.

In 1913, however, Camden's Polish population was growing so fast that the fledgling parish laid the foundation for a new church on Liberty Street with seating for 1,000.

Grand and stately, built of gray granite with a copper roof and lantern that towered above the city's eastern skyline, St. Joseph's became a proud symbol of "Polonia," or Polish culture, in South Jersey.

At its peak in the 1920s and '30s, the parish served about 3,000 families, according to Kryszkiewicz.

But as the children and grandchildren of its immigrant founders intermarried with other ethnicities, and as those couples began relocating to the suburbs after World War II, St. Joseph's membership began a steady decline - a trend seen in many other ethnic parishes.

"I have people [parishioners] who will point to a store and say, 'That was a Polish butcher,' or, 'That was a Polish barber,' " Kryszkiewicz said.

These days, however, St. Joseph's draws about only 130 people to its three weekend Masses - the 9 a.m. Sunday Mass is in Polish - although it has a donor base of several hundred more.

"We pay the bills," he said, but survival will depend on finding a new and enduring base of support.

Does he believe that a dot of saint's blood can achieve that?

"Absolutely," he replied. "Divine mercy works in mysterious ways."

He concedes, however, that he will need another ally in his cause: Bishop Dennis Sullivan, head of the Diocese of Camden, who must approve any plans to make St. Joseph's a shrine.

"Bishop will be saying 10 o'clock Mass here on Sunday," he said, in honor of Pope John Paul's canonization. "I will ask him then."


doreilly@phillynews.com

856-779-3841

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