RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The body of a saint, known in the Catholic Church as a relic, flew home to Italy after its first cross-country U.S. tour. Saint Maria Goretti, patron saint of purity and mercy, drew tens of thousands of the faithful. NPR's John Burnett caught up with the tour in Oklahoma. And he met one woman searching for forgiveness.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: This is the first time the entire skeleton of a canonized saint has come to America.
CARLOS MARTINS: For the entire body of a saint to go on the road is something that only the Roman pontiff can authorize.
BURNETT: That's Father Carlos Martins, a noted curator of relics for the Catholic Church. He put together the U.S. tour of Saint Maria Goretti. He rode in the gleaming white tractor-trailer containing her remains as it lumbered across the heartland. Her bones are encased in a wax statue dressed in white, laying in a glass casket. People stand in line, then kneel before their reliquary and hold prayer cards and rosaries against the glass. In Oklahoma City, the saint was displayed in Christ the King Catholic Church, whose pastor is Father Rick Stansberry, who wears a Roman collar and ostrich cowboy boots.
RICHARD STANSBERRY: When I first thought about it, I must admit I thought, well, that's a little bizarre, you know, worshiping a body part. But then, the more I read about it, I realized we're not really worshiping the body part. We are venerating what that saint represents.
BURNETT: What Maria Goretti represents is forgiveness. The Italian peasant girl was murdered when she was 11. Her assailant, a 19-year-old neighbor named Alessandro Serenelli, had tried to rape her. She fought back. He stabbed her 14 times with a rusty file. The year was 1902. According to a film playing inside the church, she lived until the following day.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: But before she died, she said these words. I forgive Alessandro Serenelli.
BURNETT: This is why Cathy Costello has sought out Maria Goretti. Costello is a well-coiffed woman in her 50s, exuberantly friendly and deeply Catholic. She is the recent widow of Oklahoma Labor Commissioner Mark Costello. On August 23, the commissioner was stabbed to death 17 times with a steak knife inside an ice cream parlor. Cathy Costello witnessed the attack and held her dying husband.
CATHY COSTELLO: I began to speak in his left ear. And I prayed the hail Mary; pray for us now and at the hour of our death. I asked God to forgive him of his sins. And I told him I loved him. And he died in my arms. And it's an ugly death to see someone bleed out.
BURNETT: It's uglier still that the person arrested for the murder is her 26-year-old son, Christian Costello. She says he has severe mental illness. He had stopped taking his medication, and he'd been having paranoid fantasies that his father was surveilling him. Cathy Costello has been wrestling with her grief over losing her husband of 33 years and her feelings toward her son, who sits in the county jail charged with first-degree homicide.
COSTELLO: Why? Why did you kill the one person that loved you more than anyone else in the world? Why did you hurt our family like this? And I know it's not logical because he has mental illness. But that's - if I'm going to be honest with you, that's the internal struggle.
BURNETT: Costello gave this interview in her home north of Oklahoma City on the morning that her church invited visitors in to venerate the saint. She went to the church with her other children that evening and stayed until midnight, which would have been Mark's birthday.
COSTELLO: My family will be there with Maria Goretti on my husband's 60th birthday. And I will ask her to help me forgive my son and to have some understanding about mental health.
BURNETT: Earlier this week, the mortal remains of Saint Maria Goretti were returned to her crypt in Nettuno, Italy. Back in Oklahoma City, Cathy Costello is throwing her support behind legislation that would strengthen laws to get people with severe mental illness off the streets. John Burnett, NPR News, Oklahoma City.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.