This Shady Group Of Vatican Operatives Secretly Mummified Catholic Saints' Bodies For 30 Years

It's one thing to declare certain people saints, but it's quite another to preserve their fully-clothed bodies (or pieces of them) in glass tombs for pilgrims to visit. But that's what Catholics have been doing for centuries. The bodies (and body parts) are called "relics," and some can seem shocking to non-Catholics: black, decayed tongues and organs. Skulls blackened by years of candle and incense smoke. Leathery, dried up fingers. Entire skeletons clothed in fine robes.

But not all saints' bodies decay when they die. Incorruptible saints are those whose bodies remain supple and intact long after death. But how is that possible? Some say it's a miracle, and others say it's a matter of science.

In 1975, Monsignor Gianfranco Nolli, then-director of the Vatican's Egyptian Museum, put together a team of scientists, from microbotanists and radiologists to anthropologists and embalming experts to develop new methods of preserving aging relics from as far back as the third century. The Vatican team of embalmers embarked on a project to mummify saints whose bodies were decomposing - and that included some newly-dead Catholic leaders whose cause for sainthood had not yet begun. That is when the group discovered that some relics which previously had been considered incorrupt had actually been mummified, some on purpose and others perhaps through a series of coincidental decisions by those who buried them.

From 1975 to 2008, the group mummified or restored the bodies (and body parts) of 31 saints and Catholics on the path to official sainthood. This list tells about their somewhat-secretive work to keep relics intact and looking good for years to come.

  • This Pope's Exploding Corpse May Have Partly Inspired The Formation Of The Group

    For generations, popes' bodies had been embalmed at their death, but Pope Pius XII did not want that for himself. In his final days, he was convinced by an Italian physician to allow an experimental technique that was supposedly the same method by which the body of Jesus was preserved. After the pope died in 1958, his body was wrapped in plastic with an assortment of herbs. It did not work. As his body made its way across Italy, it began to decay. His nose fell off. The stench was so bad that Swiss Guards passed out. Finally, during a ceremonial stop on the way to St. Peter's in Rome, those gathered heard a bang from inside the casket. The pope's chest cavity had exploded. After that horrifying experience, popes' bodies were again embalmed or at least treated with chemicals for their funeral. (Pope Pius XII's body was repaired and treated in time for his funeral.)

  • Monsignor Nolli Wanted To Make Catholic Mummies

    Monsignor Nolli, director of the Vatican's Egyptian Museum, saw the well-preserved state of Egyptian mummies and wondered if similar techniques could be applied to Catholic relics which were decaying with time. That is what inspired him to form the Vatican group of scientists. Eventually, the group discovered that some "incorrupt" saints actually had been mummified by their followers using techniques of the day or had been mummified by environmental conditions. Ezio Fulcheri, a pathologist from the University of Genoa and a leading researcher on incorruptibles, said that doesn't mean the saints were not miraculous. "What is a miracle?" he asked. "It's something unexplainable, a special event that may occur in different ways... which don't [necessarily] exclude natural processes that are different from the normal course of things."

  • They Fixed St. Clare's Body After It Was Found In A Coffin Full Of Moths

    When St. Clare died in 1253, her followers inserted herbs into her muscles and wrapped her in cotton. The cotton attracted dampness as well as insects so that when her coffin was opened, the saint was mostly a skeleton covered in moths. When Monsignor Nolli's group restored the relics in 1987, they found that only 54 of her 241 bones remained, many most likely taken as relics over the years. "The ones left we put in a bowl and sterilized. Then we reassembled those that were recognizable and put them back as a skeleton. The criteria of the church does not demand that a skeleton must be complete," he said.

  • The Group Restored The Stolen Foot Of St. Teresa Of Avila

    You can visit the foot of St. Teresa of Avila at Santa Maria della Scala church in Trastavere (Rome) today partly thanks to Monsignor Nolli's group. The foot was stolen in 1984 and returned days later, wrapped in a Communist newspaper. The group was called in to repair and restore it, and their work can still be seen today.

  • St. Margaret Of Cortona's Exhumation Led To Investigations Of Several "Incorruptibles"

    When the group opened St. Margaret of Cortona's reliquary, they discovered that her legs had been sliced open and sewn back together with black thread. In other words, this supposedly incorrupt saint had been artificially mummified by her followers after her death in the 13th century. It turned out they had requested the embalming from the Church very publicly, but the records had been forgotten over time. That discovery led the group to investigate other "incorruptibles," and they found that several had also been mummified using techniques of their time.

  • The Group Kept The Body Of Pope John XXIII From Decaying When His Tomb Was Opened In 2000
    Photo: April / Flickr

    The Group Kept The Body Of Pope John XXIII From Decaying When His Tomb Was Opened In 2000

    When (now St.) Pope John XXIII's body was exhumed to be moved to St. Peter's Basilica, his face was found to look remarkably unchanged from the time of his death. Some speculated that he was incorrupt, but the Vatican explained that his body had been treated with a chemical related to formaldehyde and placed in an airtight coffin. The group was part of the examination.