St. Thomas, one of the 12 apostles of Jesus Christ, is claimed to have brought Christianity to India in 52 AD, where he was killed as a martyr. His relics traveled to quite a few places after his death, until most of them found their final resting place in the Basilica di San Tommaso in Ortona, Italy.
Some of the relics of St. Thomas still remain in Chennai, India, close to where he died and was buried. Others ended up on the Greek Island Chios at the beginning of the 13th century, where, supposedly, the skull of St. Thomas remains. Yet others made their way to Italy in 1258 when Ortona’s General Leone Acciaiuoli visited the Greek island with three galleys and had a spiritual experience.
After successfully looting the place, the general went into the local church to pray. According to a legend, a light hand waved twice at him, beckoning him to come closer, and he felt a sweetness and peace as never before. Acciaiuoli than reached into the tomb and took a bone. A halo surrounding the bones was proof to him that, indeed, he had found the relics of the Apostle St. Thomas. The next night he came back and stole the rest of the relics and the tomb.
In 1358 the relics were brought to the local church in Ortona, which was elevated to a minor basilica by Pope Pius IX in 1859. There the relics of the Apostle St. Thomas, along with the looted tombstone, were displayed in a crypt, and remain to this day.
The relics survived centuries of turbulent events—an earthquake, an attack by the Turks, a fire, an attack by the French—but remained untouched. Sometime later they were put under the altar of the church. The church was damaged again during WWII under German occupation. A heavy silver bust of St. Thomas was hidden from the Germans in a dark corner of the church under some timber and the relics, which saw daylight for the first time in 150 years, were hidden in the home of the priest.
With the reopening of the church after renovation and rebuilding in 1949, the tomb and the relics of the Apostle St. Thomas, stored in a gilded copper shrine, were placed in a crypt in the Basilica and remain there up to today. The bust of St. Thomas, which contains some fragments of his scull bone, is also on display in the church again. Today many people come to visit the Basilica di San Tommaso on their 195-mile “Cammino di San Tommaso” pilgrimage, the route of St. Thomas, from Rome to Ortona.
Know Before You Go
The Basilica is open approximately 7.00 a.m. to 7.00 p.m. It would be good not to disturb mass, which is held around 3 times a day. See the website of the Basilica for more information about times, which might be subject to change.