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Lost something? Perhaps a saint can find it for you

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A statue of St. Anthony in a yard is a common sight in Italian communities. (Edmund DeMarche/CNS)

June Slaby admits that she bribes saints.

If she’s missing a purse? Hey, St. Anthony. Can’t find her house keys? Hey, St. Anthony. A misplaced bowl? Hey, St. Anthony.

If St. Anthony comes through, she’ll leave two bucks in her church’s poor box.

“He loved the poor,” she says. “So it makes him happy for us to continue his work here on earth.”

Slaby, an Italian woman in her 70s, has been calling on St. Anthony of Padua, the patron saint of lost things and missing persons, for her entire life. It’s a tradition passed down in her family that she continues.

Last year, Slaby realized she was missing a crystal bowl from her kitchen. She scoured her house, turned her kitchen upside down and phoned the usual suspects.

Plumber? He didn’t see anything. Handyman? Nothing. Tension grew. Recent guests? Nada. A crystal bowl does not just get up and walk away to some party serving eggnog.

“I grew desperate,” she says. “I just prayed so hard to St. Anthony because he’s always come through for me in the past.”

Days later, she found the bowl. It was under Tupperware in her kitchen, in a spot she had looked days before. She calls it a miracle but she’s not surprised. St. Anthony has answered her call before.

St. Anthony’s patronage of lost things comes from an incident in which a novice carried off a valuable book of psalms St. Anthony was reading. St. Anthony prayed very hard for the book’s return. After seeing an alarming apparition of St. Anthony, the novice returned the Psalter.

St. Anthony is particularly invoked by Italian Roman Catholics, who sometimes recite prayers that sound like a line out of a Martin Scorsese film: “Tony, Tony, turn around. Something’s lost and must be found.” (The Catholic Church does not recognize this variation as a prayer, preferring the traditional special novenas for the saint.)

The Catholic Church is flush with saints, each with its own patronage. Paratroopers in Iraq might say a prayer to St. Michael the Archangel, patron of paratroopers. Ken Lewis, CEO of Bank of America, might do well to pray to Matthew, Bernardino of Feltre, the patron of bankers. And on April 15, St. Matthew will surely be called upon by tax collectors—he’s their patron.

Prayer to a saint actually asks the saint to bring the request before God. After all, no saint alone has the ability to grant a miracle, says the Rev. Francis Hanudel from the Shrine of St. Anthony of Padua in New York City’s Greenwich Village.

“If a stranger comes up to me and asks me to pray with them to God for a special request, I do it,” Hanudel says. “That’s the same with saints.” (Full disclosure: Hanudel is going to pray for me that I do a good job with this article.)

Many Catholics have a considerable devotion to a particular saint. Take James Quintone.

“Thirty-four years ago, St. Anthony answered a prayer of mine that I knew would take a miracle,” says Quintone, a nurse, who prefers not to say what he prayed for. “When I made my request, I told St. Anthony that I’d make a shrine for him every feast day.”

So every Feast of St. Anthony, June 13, Quintone erects a shrine in his Brooklyn living room, hands out pamphlets and announces the shrine at local Masses.

For three days, hundreds of friends, strangers and neighbors visit his home. He hands out dried lilies, a flower seen in many images of the saint and a sign of purity. He offers pastries and coffee. And he never rushes anyone out. Sometimes people stay in his living room until the wee hours. It’s his payback.

Despite that devotion, there are those skeptical of praying to saints. Christophe Chalamet, a professor of historical theology at the University of Geneva, says the adoration of saints is misplaced.

“Adoration and prayers should be said to God and Christ alone,” says Chalamet, a Reformist and Calvinist. “That’s not to say these saints weren’t exceptional people. It just can be seen as idolatry.”

He continued, “It’s the cults of saints. They are not infinite beings.”

Quintone’s faith, however, is undeterred. “It’s the feeling of comfort I get when I pray to St. Anthony. That’s faith.”

E-mail: ejd2122@columbia.edu