Of bodysnatching and lesser crimes

Kristof Smeyers

The archives of the Franciscans in my hometown Hasselt, Belgium, hold a box that is labelled, in all capitals, ‘CRIME’.

This surprises me. The box sits in a voluminous collection of records about the Franciscan brother Valentinus Paquay, who for more than a century now has been widely revered as the town’s most saintly inhabitant. He was beatified in 2003, but even before his death in 1905 he was much better known as a saint. People who didn’t know his name did know ‘het heilig paterke’ – ‘the little holy brother’. Before entering the archives, I had read about him, and not just hagiographies: Paquay didn’t strike me as someone who would commit a crime. At the worst, he had a reputation of occasional grumpiness.

Nor is it likely that the Franciscan brothers who organised the archive in function of the beatification campaign wanted to direct attention to Paquay’s previously unknown criminal past. (At any rate, the archive labels in the collection have a tendency to direct this historian’s attention to those boxes that allegedly hold nothing of importance. Several of them claim to have nothing but ‘Rubbish’, and are in fact full of material devotional treasures.) Paquay had predicted the moment of his own death months earlier, when struggling with illness. He would not allow himself to die in 1904, a jubilee year of the Virgin Mary, so he passed on 1 January 1905. Even in his final moments he lived a life free of sin and full of saintliness.

Packed between the many boxes of testimonies about the little holy brother’s miracles and intercessions, ‘CRIME’ sticks out like a sore thumb.

But it also fills me with anticipation. After all, the box sits neatly in a section of the archive that is themed around Paquay’s afterlife: the burial, the tomb, the exhumation, the reburial, the relics. Did the saintly dead body commit a crime? Also highly unlikely. But I know about some of the transgressions that took place in the immediate aftermath of the Franciscan’s death, when his body was displayed outside the church and people from all over Belgium clambered to tear off pieces of the weathered brown robe – or worse, Paquay’s body. When his body was exhumed in 1926 throngs of people again gathered to claim a piece of holiness; at the cemetery, the bishop threatened loudly with excommunication for ‘anyone who would dare to take away even the smallest piece of the body, the fabric, or the coffin’. Were these the ‘crimes’ in the box?

I also know of other crimes that happened with similar saintly bodies; they are histories of grave-robbing operations, dismembering, bodysnatching in moonlight, deception, desecration, fraud. They are histories of accusations, also retroactively, across centuries. Take the Anglican antiquarian James Raine. In 1827 he witnessed the opening of St Cuthbert’s tomb in the cathedral of Durham. The body of the medieval saint had remained incorrupt and intact since his death in 687, so it was said. Raine’s scepticism was vindicated when the body was revealed. The saint’s eyeballs were obviously fake, and the monks who had exhumed Cuthbert in 1104 were to blame for the whole fraudulent affair, and for breathing life into this ‘tale of centuries’ about saintly incorruptibility.[1] Or, closer to Paquay’s time and place, there was the theft in 1907 of the body of the Redemptorist Joseph-Amand Passerat, who had died in the ‘odour of sanctity’ in 1858. Passerat’s body turned out not to be immune to the forces of time and nature, but sometimes a whiff of incorruptibility, no matter how faint, suffices to provoke criminal behaviour.

I had also read about the rumours of Valentinus Paquay’s body in the years after his death in 1905. Those rumours did not seem to hold up against the exhumation reports, but they persisted regardless. ‘CRIME’, then, might very well refer to an episode of attempted robbery or relic theft. If so, this was news.

I grew up with stories about Paquay, living in a town that kept his saintly legacy alive with new miracle stories, publications, and all kinds of merchandising. (Do try the ‘Heilig Paterke speculaas’ biscuits if you’re in the neighbourhood.) Being in this archive feels like (re-)establishing a personal connection with the town; I am more acutely aware of the emotions that course through these records than I am in other archives, perhaps because I recognise surnames and street names. I go through the list of sponsors for the construction of Paquay’s new tomb in the 1920s and am surprised not to see my family’s names there when everyone else was sending small envelopes to the Franciscans. This only to say that after several days in the archive I had come to feel especially invested in Paquay’s story in a way that made reading the countless eyewitness testimonies of his miraculous intercessions less a test of endurance and more a meditative and emotional exercise.

‘CRIME’, then.

I open the box. Inside: a pile of press cuttings and notebooks and letters about a ‘hold-up’. In February 1967, it turns out, students had kidnapped a colourful bust of Paquay. The town was in uproar for several days. Even people who had long complained about the kitsch aesthetics of the bust were outraged. The bust was found in a neighbouring town two days later. The whole affair had little to do with Paquay’s supposedly miraculous body, but it does hint at the emphatic presence of Paquay’s legacy, and at how ideas of sanctity mixed with local identity. In the aftermath stories of his supposedly intact body resurfaced; the Franciscans observed a notable spike in visitor numbers to the tomb. People’s connection to the body inside is constantly remade through gestures and habits that become more pronounced in moments of crisis and crime, even if that crime turned out to be a practical joke.

I make a note to ask my family about the bust. I move on to ‘Rubbish’ and immediately find a carefully tied-together bundle of wood from Paquay’s coffin, and a piece of cloth that comes with a note: ‘Has touched the body of our beloved little brother.’

[1] James Raine, Saint Cuthbert: with an account of the state in which his remains were found upon the opening of his tomb in Durham Cathedral (Durham: Humble, 1828).

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