AN INVALUABLE holy relic said to be from the cross Jesus Christ died on has been stolen from an ancient monastery in Ireland.
The miniature artefact brought to Holy Cross Abbey in Thurles, Co Tipperary, in the late 12th century was taken by two masked men yesterday in a broad daylight raid.
Armed with an angle grinder, hammer and screwdriver, the pair stole a gold and bronze cross about 12 inches high with a glass-fronted centrepiece used to hold the relic.
It had been stored securely in a steel-bound display case.
Father Tom Breen, parish priest of Holy Cross Abbey, said the relic has been the source of devotion and pilgrimage for the last 900 years.
"I would like to appeal to the thieves in the strongest possible terms not to damage the relic - just leave the artefacts in some church and they will eventually come back to me or we will use a third person," he said.
"It is impossible to put a value on it commercially or an intrinsic value, and from religious and emotional point of view it`s immeasurable.
"I would in my heart feel that the thieves had no real appreciation of what it is they were taking. I would hope that they didn`t have any ulterior motive."
The cross housing the relic is known as a monstrance, which sits on a small base and contains a transparent case normally used for holding the communion host.
It was housed in a steel-framed display which the thieves used the angle grinder, hammer and screwdriver to break open.
The thieves also got away with a 14th-century silver holy cross, again about 12 inches in height, which had been hanging from a chain and contained two crosses and two dark stones.
Three sets of keys had been stolen from the church sacristy in recent weeks. The priests subsequently took precautions to call in locksmiths and change up to ten locks where important artefacts are housed.
Two women, who had been seen around the church, are suspected of involvement in the theft of the keys.
The tiny relic was originally brought to the monastery when it was first consecrated by Cistercian monks in about 1180. It is believed to have been a gift from Donal Mor O'Brien, King of Munster, who founded the abbey.
Gardai said two men who carried out the theft both had their faces covered and openly carried the tools into the church. A parishioner passed the two men in the church before the theft.
The pair left within a few minutes and fled in a red or wine-coloured VW Touareg jeep which was later found burned out.
Gardai said a third person had been waiting in the getaway car, which had the partial registration number 06 OY or 06 LK, and went in the direction of Yellow Lough.
The car was discovered a short time later about two to three miles from the scene at the Yellow Lough, Thurles, where it had been set on fire.
A dark-coloured saloon car was seen in the vicinity of where the VW Touareg jeep was burnt out, travelling at high speed.
Gardai in Thurles have appealed for witnesses.
Archbishop Dermot Clifford, Archbishop of Cashel and Emly, added his voice to appeals for the cross and relic to be returned.
"The high profile of Holy Cross Abbey rests primarily on its possession of this relic. The unlawful removal of this relic is regarded as an outrage by the people of faith who value its spiritual and historic importance," he said.
"The faithful are extremely upset at the loss of this irreplaceable and sacred relic.
"While it is not of great material value, it holds significant spiritual meaning for the faithful of the Archdiocese of Cashel and Emly and beyond.
"Holy Cross Abbey will never be the same again unless and until the relic is returned."
The Archdiocese revealed the history behind the "Relic of the True Cross" which Pope Paschal II gave to the O'Brien Kings of Thomond in recognition for their support for the Catholic Church.
The Cistercian Order protected the relic until the monastery was suppressed during the Reformation. In 1801 it was given to the Ursuline Sisters in Blackrock, Co Cork, by Bishop Francis Moylan before being returned to Holy Cross after restoration in 1975.