The iron cage that housed the heart of St. Laurence O'Toole sits broken and empty Sunday inside Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin. A modern portrait of Jesus Christ is in the background.
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DUBLIN — Somewhere in Ireland, a burglar has the heart of a saint.
Officials at Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin said Sunday they’re distraught and perplexed over the theft of the church’s most precious relic: the preserved heart of St. Laurence O’Toole, patron saint of Dublin.
O’Toole’s heart had been displayed in the cathedral since the 13th century. It was stored in a heart-shaped wooden box and secured in a small, square iron cage on the wall of a chapel dedicated to his memory. On Saturday someone cut through two bars, pried the cage loose, and made off with the relic.
“I am devastated that one of the treasured artifacts of the cathedral is stolen,” said the Most Rev. Dermot Dunne, the cathedral’s dean. “It has no economic value but it is a priceless treasure that links our present foundation with its founding father.”
Ireland’s national police force, the Garda Siochana, said detectives were studying hours of closed-circuit TV footage to try to identify the approximately 40 people who walked out the cathedral’s front doors Saturday morning.
The force said the thief may have hidden overnight in the cathedral and fled with the heart when its doors opened Saturday. Worshippers didn’t spot that the relic was missing until Saturday afternoon. Nobody was arrested.
Nuala Kavanagh, the cathedral’s director of operations, said whoever stole it appeared to have no interest in financial gain, since several nearby objects made of gold and other precious materials were not touched.
“It’s completely bizarre,” she said. “They didn’t touch anything else. They wanted the heart of St. Laurence O’Toole.”
Church services went ahead as normal Sunday. The trickle of tourists visiting the Viking-era cathedral weren’t told of the theft. Many approached the O’Toole chapel and spent much time looking, confusedly, between their guide books and the pried-open box.
Ireland’s churches have suffered a spate of such robberies of irreplaceable, but also hard to sell, religious artifacts.
Last year three relics believed to be fragments of the cross used to crucify Jesus were stolen from Holy Cross Abbey in County Tipperary. Police safely recovered those relics in January but arrested nobody.
Also in January, a thief stole the ornate container housing the jawbone of St. Brigid in a northside Dublin church. The container, called a reliquary, was bolted down to the altar. However, it had just been cleaned and so the jawbone of St. Brigid, one of Ireland’s earliest and most venerated saints, wasn’t inside.
O’Toole was Dublin’s archbishop from 1162 to 1180 and gained a reputation as a skillful mediator between rival Gaelic and Norman factions then fighting for power in Ireland. He died aged 58 while traveling in Normandy on another peace mission. On his death bed he was said to have declined to make a will, claiming not to have a penny to his name.
Pope Honorius III canonized O’Toole in 1225 on the weight of many claims of miracles at his original grave site.
O’Toole’s heart had been the last surviving part of his remains. His bones were re-interred in an English church yard in 1442 but were dug up and disappeared during the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century.
Although O’Toole is mainly revered by Roman Catholics, Christ Church Cathedral has been a center of worship for the Anglican-affiliated Church of Ireland since the Reformation.