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Church selling bone chips of friar who may become a saint

Tiny bone fragments from the body of Father Junipero Serra, the 18thcentury Franciscan missionary many believe to be a saint, are being offered as relics by the Roman Catholic Church.

"About 500 encapsulated relics are available for a suggested donation of $25 to $250," said the Rev. Noel Francis Moholy, the 73-year-old Franciscan friar from San Francisco who has campaigned for Serra's sainthood for nearly 40 years.

Moholy, who insisted that the relics are not for sale but available for a donation, said the differences in price depend on the containers in which the relics are sold.

In the $250 deluxe model, the bone fragment is preserved in plastic in a silver medal that is contained in a 4-inch by 4-inch wooden box with a red satin lining.

Less expensive relics are contained in bronze medals in damask-covered boxes for $100 or in a small plastic box for $25.

Moholy said the bone relics are similar "to having a picture of your mother or a piece of her jewelry after she has died. You cherish it, but you don't worship it."

"These are not amulets or charms," he said. "They are not like rabbits' feetthey are merely a means of devotion to Blessed Junipero Serra. That is the whole point and impact.

"Some people find them to be a great means of devotion, others are turned off by them, but that is a personal matter."

Serra, known as the "Apostle of California," established the Catholic Church in California and founded nine missions from San Diego to San Francisco between 1769 and his death in 1784.

He was declared "blessed" by Pope John Paul II in September 1988 during a dramatic beatification ceremony in Vatican City.

Beatification is the second of three steps to sainthood in the Catholic Church.

The bone chips were collected in 1987 when Serra's remains were exhumed from their resting place at the Carmel Mission Basilica during a process known as "canonical recognition," in which church officials, physicians and forensic anthropologists laid the skeleton out on an altar cloth and examined it to confirm that the friar was really buried there.

After the examination, Serra's bones were resealed in a casket and buried beneath the altar of the basilica in a solemn religious ceremony.

Moholy said the "infinitesimally small but discernable" pieces of bone that remained on the altar cloth after the examination were sent to Rome, where they were sealed in plastic and prepared for distribution as relics.

The altar cloth was also taken apart, and bits of the thread were prepared as lesser relics that sell for $2.50 to $7.50, depending on the container.

The relics are available at Carmel Mission in Carmel, Mission Dolores in San Francisco or at 133 Golden Gate Ave. in San Francisco, headquarters of The Serra Cause.

Moholy said the proceeds from the relics will help defer the $70,000 cost of manufacturing the commemorative medals made for the beatification ceremony and for furthering the cause of Serra's sainthood.