In search of sister Krucifiksa’s bones

When Pope John Paul II visited Rijeka in 2003, procedure of canonization – the protocol leading to recognition of “blessed” and “holy” attributes of a person – of Sister Marija Krucifiksa Kozulić, founder of the Society of Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, was initiated and at this point the only remaining obstacle is identification of her mortal remains, which is a task on hands of professor Dragan Primorac, formerly Minister of Science, Education, and Sports, and Professor Alan Bosnar, head of the Department of Forensic Medicine and Criminology with the Medical Faculty of University of Rijeka. Even though she passed away ninety years ago, in 1922, her mortal remains have been moved from her family’s crypt to be interred in a shared tomb in Municipal Graveyard Kozala. But, as it happens that the tomb contains mortal remains of roughly fifty other late nuns of the Society of the Sacred Heart of Jesus having been buried in the crypt ever since 1907 to the present day, it turned out that all the bodies must be exhumed in order to identify and separate the mortal remains of Sister Krucifiksa.

Archbishop Ivan Devčić, abbess Felicita Špehar and Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus have celebrated a holy mass in the early morning of December 20th praying for the blessing for the process of exhumation of remains of Sister Krucifiksa Kozulić. In the days to follow, the remains from different periods were exhumed and experts in forensic anthropology, judicial medicine and archaeology started a delicate process of identification of the remains. Professor Šimun Anđelinović, Head of the Department of Forensic Medicine of Medical Faculty in Split, Anja Petaros, forensic anthropologist with the Institute of Forensic Medicine and Criminology in Rijeka, archaeologist Ivana Anterić, chemical technician Željana Bašić from University Centre for Forensic Sciences in Split, and Dr. Miran Čoklo, PhD, head of laboratory for toxicology at the Institute of Forensic Medicine and Criminology in Rijeka.

Professor Dragan Primorac explained that the identification of the remains of Sister Krucifiksa will be carried through using an anthropological analysis procedure:

“We have photos of her at disposal, so we know how she looked like and how tall she was in her lifetime and that information should suffice to determine with high degree of certainty which skeletal remains belong to Sister Marija Krucifiksa Kozulić. We all hope that all the information on traumas, illnesses, and skeletal deformations of all the buried nuns will be sufficient to conclude which one of them is Sister Marija Krucifiksa Kozulić. But, should we happen to have any doubts, we shall extract and multiply the DNA from the skeletons that, according to anthropometrical data, may belong to Sister Marija Krucifiksa Kozulić and compare the samples to the DNA sample of her biological sister who was also a nun and who died in 1933 and was buried in the same tomb. This way we shall determine the statistical probability that the samples belong to biological sisters, and I also introduced Professor Damir Marjanović, distinguished forensic and a close associate of mine from Bosnia and Herzegovina. My cooperation with Professor Marjanović goes back to period when we worked on identifying the victims of wars in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.”


Professor Alan Bosnar pointed out that it was necessary to exhume all the remains found in the tomb in order to find the remains which belong to Sister Krucifiksa. The remains of about fifty persons in the tomb were found in layers. “The space in the tomb was limited, so it was necessary to re-arrange the remains in 2006, when we entered the tomb, we found that a number of coffins were considerably damaged and that many of them bore no labels. Furthermore, the labels we found were not exactly readable any more. Consequently, we had to sort skeletons and do the anthropological profiling for each of the persons in the tomb, then use the profiles to identify those skeletons that may be a match and send them to Split laboratory to proceed on the genetic profiling”, professor Bosnar explained. However, the old-fashioned methods of identification of the skeletons is made much easier owing to the fact that the found facts could be compared to the information in a very extensive archive kept by sisters of the society, which contained plenty of various anthropological and medical data of illnesses such as: tuberculosis, rickets, arthritis, traumas and deformations of bones. The possibility of such a forensic determination makes the entire demanding and important project all the easier. The importance of that unexpectedly important aid is emphasized when one has in mind that – unlike the tidy archives of the nuns – the bodies were almost fully shuffled during the re-arrangements. Therefore, the forensic team shall, after all the remains of the nuns are examined, place the remains in the new coffins. What’s more, the process of laying the coffins with the remains back in the tomb will be closely supervised. Only the remains of Sister Krucifiksa will not be returned to the shared tomb. After having finally being identified, her remains will find their permanent resting place provided by the Church.

The Society of Sisters of the Heart of Jesus initiated the beatification process, and it was Msgr. Ivan Devčić, archbishop of Rijeka, who announced it for the first time during a holy mass celebrated in the honor of Pope John Paul II visit to Rijeka in 2003. According to the regulation introduced by the Pope Benedict XVI, the beatification need not necessarily be done in Vatican, but in the very place where the deceased person lived. Sister Marija Krucifiksa Kozulić was born in Sušak on September 20th, 1852. Her father was Ivan Matej – they used to call him Sea Wolf – was a ship owner and sea captain. Eleven children were born in the family, but only five of them lived to the adult age. Marija was very pious from her earliest and she was educated by Benedictine nuns. When she prayed, she specifically prayed to God that her father be spared from the sea storms. After her father’s vessel sank on the way from New York to Odessa on September 11th 1874, and the father and the entire crew miraculously survived, the family had to move from Rijeka to Trieste for economic reasons, because father’s company went bankrupt. In Trieste, Krucifiksa, a laywoman at that time, joined Daughters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, sisterhood founded in Trieste in 1879 by capucin Arcangelo da Camerino, where she spent the next ten years teaching the faith to the poor and neglected young girls and spreading devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. She continued her work in Rijeka, founding Society of Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and established a shelter for orphans and poor children, regardless of their ethnicity or religion. Her greatest concerns were fates of abandoned little girls and young ladies. She did not only provide lodging, meals and clothing, but valuable education and upbringing as well. She herself, was teaching foreign languages. The citizens of Rijeka nicknamed her “Mother of many children”. Vladimir Nazor, Croatian writer who was director of orphanage in Crikvenica, appealed to Sister Krucifiksa to send him five of her sisters to assist him in his work, and he interceded in the eventual dispute between Croatian and Italian nuns supporting the continuation of the Croatian order.


Marija Kozulić took her vow of chastity when she was twenty-nine, and put on a habit in 1904, when she completed her vows and took name Krucifiksa or “Raspeta” (Croatian: “the crucified one”). The most important fact for the beatification process is the fact that she was renowned for her sainthood at the time of death because her entire life had been devoted to serving God, who loved her close ones with true selflessness and provided help for the least fortunate. Thirty days after her death, the citizens of Rijeka decided to build her a tombstone with engraved epitaph “She was the true mother to the poor, orphaned, and abandoned children and youth”.

Identifying the mortal remains of Sister Krucifiksa will be a great success of Croatian Forensics. Professor Dragan Primorac said that the Croatian forensics science is amongst the world leaders, because Croatia made sizable steps forward in that field because the country had to intensify the development of that scientific discipline mainly due to the need to identify individual victims of war, and because of the cooperation with leading world experts. The importance of cooperation between Croatian and American forensic experts was especially stressed during important forensic congress held in Bol on the Croatian island of Brač in the summer of 2011, when professor Frederick Bieber of Harvard University disclosed that it was Croatian identification protocols that were used to identify victims who died in the World Trade Center in the terrorist attacks of the 9/11.

The education of new professionals is the key element in the progress of that discipline. It is why professor Primorac is especially proud that the first generation of Masters of Forensic Science had their graduation ceremony just a few days earlier.

“Our students are the first to have been systematically trained masters of forensics in the region where about 40 million people live, and there is still much demand for the profession. Our education program is special for its four modules: Crime scene investigation, forensic chemistry and molecular biology, forensics and national security, and forensics of accounting and finance. The education program of the Forensic Study in the Split University is compatible with similar courses available in U.S. universities George Washington, Penn State, and New Haven.

Aktual, Orhideja Gaura, January 3rd 2012, pages 32 – 35.

The entire original article can be found here:
In Search of Sister Krucifiksa’s Bones

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