Whenever Cecilia Hartle loses something, she prays to St. Anthony of Padua, the patron of lost objects and -- like magic -- she says her possessions appear.
Today, she'll get a rare opportunity to venerate her favorite saint, when relics of the 13th-century Italian religious figure go on display at the Companions of St. Anthony, Conventual Franciscan Friars in Ellicott City.
The relics -- bits of the saint's flesh enclosed in ornate reliquaries -- are on a 10-state tour of the United States, part of their first worldwide tour since St. Anthony's remains were extracted from his tomb in Padua, Italy, in 1981. The friary is one of only three venues in the Baltimore area to display the saint's relics.
And for some of the 1,000 visitors expected to turn out today, the event brings the excitement of a fan club meeting.
"I'd like to say, 'I touched it,' " says Mrs. Hartle, a retired grocery checker, though she knows that it's forbidden to touch a relic. "He's my favorite saint."
Born to a rich and noble family in Lisbon in 1195, the man who became St. Anthony entered St. Augustine's Order of Canons Regular, where he was ordained a priest at age 25.
He later joined the Franciscans -- followers of St. Francis of Assisi -- and became known as a witness to those who had experienced significant losses, both spiritual and material. On June 13, 1231, at the age of 36, he died of heart failure.
A year later, he was declared a saint. And 800 years after his birth, his popularity hasn't waned, said the Rev. Martin Kobos, the development director of St. Anthony of Padua Province.
The relics on display today are bits of petrified flesh. They are contained in two reliquaries: an 18-inch-tall glass cylinder and a gold-colored arch within a 3-foot-tall bust of St. Anthony.
The reliquaries will be on display under a tent outside the friary during the all-day Franciscan Festival of Faith. Other activities include a religious art exhibit, a healing service, dramatic presentations, readings and prayers in preparation for Pope John Paul II's visit to Baltimore on Oct. 8.
The notion of relics goes back to the early centuries of the church, "when people were killed because of their faith," said Father Kobos. Like family treasures, people who revered the martyrs wanted to be physically close to them, he said.
Yesterday, the relics were to stop at St. Casimir Church in Baltimore. Tomorrow, they will go to St. Clement Mary Hofbauer Church, also in Baltimore. And after leaving Maryland, the relics will be transported to New Jersey. They already have stopped in Massachusetts and New York.
Devotees of the saint say they've been eagerly awaiting the relics' visit.
"I just wouldn't miss something like this for the world," says Marla Marfizo of Ellicott City, who cooks for the friars. "It's just a special thing, and with the pope's visit we are in need of prayer for his journey."
Mrs. Hartle explains her devotion in practical terms, saying that when she loses something, she calls on St. Anthony -- and within 20 minutes locates what she was looking for.
"I'm telling you it works," Mrs. Hartle said. "But there's a catch to it: You've got to remember to say, 'Thank you.' "
Her husband, however, says he will view the relics more out of curiosity.
"I just don't have that much faith in St. Anthony -- or maybe I don't lose as much as she does," Mr. Hartle says.