For Dominican Father Michael Ford, the history of salvation is contained a chunk of bone. Ford directs the Dominican Shrine of St. Jude Thaddeus at St. Pius V Church, 1910 S. Ashland Ave., and as such, he takes care of the shrine’s relic of the apostle, perhaps best known as the patron saint of lost causes, and brings it to parishes and schools around the country where he offers parish missions, retreats and other events. Relics, he said, are “a way for people to grow in their faith. Catholicism isn’t crazy for doing this.” Many people, religious and otherwise, venerate relics in their own way, whether it’s building a shrine to one’s ancestors or displaying an autographed baseball card, “anything we keep from a previous encounter,” Ford said. When he visits schools, Ford said, he explains that relics of the saints are physical reminders that the saints we venerate were real people. They wore clothes, they ate and drank, they embraced their loved ones. Now that they are with God in heaven, we can ask them to pray for us. “It’s a human thing to honor the dead, and we add another layer to it with the Communion of the Saints,” Ford said. Keeping mementos of the saints, he said, “it’s not as odd as people think.” But, Ford said, people do think it’s odd. He understands, because he used to think so, too. Ford converted to Catholicism 24 years ago, but it wasn’t until he’d been in seminary three or four years that relics started to make sense to him. He was in St. Louis, at the motherhouse of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondolet, making a retreat between his first vows and his final vows as a Dominican. The chapel there includes the remains of seven saints, including the full skeleton of St. Aurelia, with the bones arranged in a kind of box, two long bones crossed in front, just below the skull. Such displays were common in the catacombs and were liked the inspiration of the Jolly Roger, Ford said. In any case, he was praying in the chapel, “and I had this skull grinning at me,” he said. “It took a couple of days, but I came to realize this was a real flesh-and-blood person. These saints were real people who struggled with a lot of things we do. They’re not just names in a book.” Physical remains remind Catholics of the resurrection of the dead. “Our bodies are important,” Ford said. “We die and are going to be separated from them, but we’re going to get them back.” When Ford travels, he brings a case of mostly small relics from various saints — a drop of blood on a cloth, or something the saint once used. Physical remains, from bones to hair to blood, are considered first-class relics; items the saint used such as articles of clothing are second-class relics. He distributes holy cards that people can touch to the relic of St. Jude, thereby creating their own third-class relics. The St. Jude relic — a 1¼-slice of the right radius bone, taken from where the wrist bumps out — is encased in a 225-year-old reliquary shaped like a forearm and hand. It travels in a specially built case, and when Ford flies somewhere, it always goes carry-on, never checked. A few years ago, when the airline changed the size of carry-ons allowed, Ford was able to get the gate agent to give him special permission to take the case aboard with him. The agent told her husband about it, and he got his Knights of Columbus council to donate a new case, made to fit to the smaller specifications. Ford said he also has had his share of interesting conversations with TSA agents, although questions have diminished since he got approved for pre-check. “You see them back it up in the machine and look again,” he said. Then they want to open the case and take a look. “I tell them that’s fine as long as I’m the only one to handle the relic,” he said. “Once they understand what it is, they’re fine. A lot of them say it’s the coolest thing to ever come through their line.” And, he said, it really probably is, especially since people at the time of Jesus greeted friends by grasping one another’s forearms, rather than shaking hands. As an apostle, Jude would have greeted Jesus this way, Ford said. “Just think, that particular bone was one skin layer away from God,” he said. “That bone was at the Last Supper.” When Ford is not traveling with it, the relic is locked in its niche behind glass in the shrine, house in St. Pius V Church, 1910 S. Ashland Ave. Since the Dominicans learned that St. Pius V will remain open following the reorganization of parishes in Pilsen, Ford is looking for money to refurbish the shrine, which features electric candles, a mosaic dome and a colored marble statue of the saint surrounded by people. The statue itself is surrounded by flowers, many placed in the vases of water that sit ready along the walls. Ford, director of the shrine for four years, said he doesn’t know who provides the vases or cares for the flowers. “People just come and do it,” he said. The bone is reported to be the largest relic of an apostle outside Rome. In addition to the arm bone, the shrine has three much smaller relics of St. Jude. It was given to the shrine on the 20th anniversary of the shrine’s dedication in 1949 by the Dominican Province in Turin, Italy. Ford said that when he travels with the relic, he often will do more than one presentation – such as a parish mission in the evening and a talk for grade school students during the day – and he has offered to visit any school in the Archdiocese of Chicago that wants him to come. He hopes, he said, that the shrine and its relic can help spread the virtue of hope — hope and trust in the promise of the Resurrection. To visit the shrine or request a lecture by Ford, visit the-shrine.org.