In San Francisco, the line stretched from the steps of the ornate Carmelite chapel all the way down the street and around the corner. For more than seven hours, it neither stopped nor shortened. Long past midnight, in the bone-chilling fog of the San Francisco night, the devout waited patiently.

Inside the chapel was a reliquary, a casket for holding sacred objects, that held some of the bones of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the cloistered French nun who died of tuberculosis in 1897 at age 24 and is considered the most popular Catholic saint of the 20th century because of her humility and charity. The three-foot-long reliquary have beentouring the world since the mid-90s, and they've drawn huge crowds everywhere they've appeared: France, Italy, Germany, Slovenia, Brazil, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Argentina. Her bones reached the United States last October, and they slowly worked their way westward, seemingly drawing ever longer lines of pilgrims in every city where they were displayed. When the U.S. tour finished in Hawaii on January 28, the relics were put on a plane headed for thePhilippines.

The enormous numbers of people--more than 1 million in America alone--who have flocked to venerate St. Thérèse's bones are part of a worldwide resurgence of interest insaintly body parts and objects that touched them--after several decades, from the 60s through the 80s, in which they were out of religious fashion. The Internet, which has facilitated a thriving auction market for them, is one reason for the relic revival. Another, more palpable reason may be that increasing numbers of people these days, both religious and secular, see a connection between relics and their desire to transcend ordinary life and find meaning in death.

For example,Pennsylvania artist Anne Wolf makes herown relics that have a largely secular significance. "They're smallsculptural objects that I call relics because they'relike pieces of imaginary culture I'm creating," says Wolf, who is also an artprofessor at IndianaUniversity of Pennsylvania. "For me, it's aboutdealing with the idea of continuity in the face ofimpermanence, sothat deathbecomes like a form of transformation instead offinality," sheexplains.

The San Francisco crowd that came to see St. Thérèse's relics was as diverse as the city's lifestyles. An African-American man with a shaved head and black leather jacket stood next to a gray-haired Caucasian nun in a navy blue habit. There were young Asian mothers with babies in strollers, hordes of teenagers, and elderly people in wheelchairs. During a Mass in the chapel, the priest, the Rev. Patrick Sugrue, who had been traveling with the relics through California and Nevada spoke of what had happened when the relics arrived at the El Carmelo Retreat House in Redlands, California, a few days before. A party tent had been erected to hold the 1,000 people who had been expected to visit therelics--but the number of pilgrims surged to 8,000 over the three-day period.

"Then I drove with the relics across the Mojave Desert to Las Vegas," he continued. "There were 2,000 people waiting at the first church, then another 5,000 venerated the relics at the next one. For me, it was an unforgettable experience."

The scene was similar when the relics of St. Thérèse arrived in Seattle after their San Francisco stop. People were packed shoulder to shoulder during the Mass, even in the aisles.

"The priest standing next to me said, 'This is like the Middle Ages,'" say psychotherapist Christie Cave, who stood in line in Seattle for a total of seven hours, first to get into the Mass and then to venerate the relics. "The church had the soaring lines of a Gothic cathedral, and the people were just cheek-and-jowl," says Cave. "The only difference from the Middle Ages was that some people got to sit down for Mass, when back then everyone would have been standing."

In fact, in medieval Christianity, the cult of the relics--parts of saints' bodies, fragments of their clothing, and even objects that they had touched or had touched their corpses--was one of the most popular ways of venerating these holy men and women. People believed that "the saints in their glory...were not forgetful of those still struggling on earth: between them there was a fellowship or communion linking the living with the dead," wrote Newsweek religion writer Kenneth Woodward in his 1990 book, Making Saints. Early Christians prayed to the saints for everything from protection on long journeys to healings and other miracles. By the eighth century, venerating the saints was such an intrinsic part of Christian belief that a church council held in Nicea in present-day Turkey in 767 decreed that every church altar must contain a stone bearing the relics of a saint.

By the 10th century, the cult of relics exploded. In the early days most saints were venerated only in their own localities, where their relics--usually parts of their buried bodies--were easily accessible. As the centuries passed, devotions to the more popular saints, and the ones who worked the most miracles, began spreading by word of mouth from their own regions to other parts of the Christian world.