Stonehill Professor Attends Reburial of Copernicus
July 14, 2010
When the remains of the Renaissance astronomer Nicholas Copernicus were re-interred on May 22 at Frombork Cathedral in northern Poland, Stonehill Professor Andre Goddu [pictured left] was one of only two Americans invited to take part in the event.
It was the opportunity of a lifetime for Goddu, who teaches the history of astronomy and physics at Stonehill, has studied Copernicus for 20 years and this year published the book Copernicus and the Artistotelian Tradition.
"Absolutely, it was the most amazing trip I have ever made to Europe," said Goddu.
During his week in Poland, Goddu participated in an international scientific conference featuring top scholars at the University of Olsztyn and attended two solemn high funeral Masses in cathedrals honoring Copernicus. He also escaped flooding that devastated the southern part of the nation.
When Copernicus died in 1543, he was a little-known canon at Frombork Cathedral in a remote part of northern Poland, far from the academic circles of Europe, who had just published what would become his most important work, "On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres." Like other church canons of his day, he was buried in an unmarked spot in the sand beneath the cathedral floor.
Later, his book became controversial within the Catholic Church because it advanced the idea that the Earth was not the center of the universe. Copernicus based his model on mathematical calculations because the telescope had not yet been invented. His treatise is regarded today as the beginning of modern astronomy.
About 200 years ago, archaeologists began searching for Copernicus' remains. In August 2005, Jerzy Gassowski, head of an anthropology and archaeology institute in Pultusk, discovered a skull and other fragments buried in a 16th-century layer of sand in the cathedral floor. Last year, DNA testing of hair samples found in a book owned by Copernicus confirmed that the remains were his.
Goddu's trip to Poland came about by chance when he accepted an invitation from a Stonehill colleague, the Rev. Thomas Gariepy, C.S.C., to hear Copernicus expert Owen Gingerich deliver the annual Thomas E. Golden Lecture on Science and Religion at Yale University in April.
Gariepy and Goddu talked with Gingerich for almost an hour, after which Gingerich proposed that Goddu come to the ceremony in Poland, and "my jaw dropped," Goddu said.
"It was a total surprise to me," said Goddu. "I knew about the discovery of the remains five years ago and the DNA analysis last year. I was following the research and such but never expected to be invited," Goddu said.
Gingerich and Goddu traveled first to Pultusk, about 90 minutes north of Warsaw, in rain that would later devastate southern Poland. There, Goddu was able to meet Gassowski, who led the successful search for Copernicus' remains.
The three, accompanied by others, then traveled on to Olsztyn, where Copernicus lived for a time and where the wooden casket containing his remains was lying in state in the castle of Archbishop Wojciech Ziemba of Varmia.
They made presentations at the conference, then took part in a procession transferring the coffin from the archbishop's castle to the cathedral for a solemn high funeral Mass.
"The Polish love their choirs and the music was spectacular," said Goddu.
Two days later, Goddu and his entourage were in Frombork, a small resort town, for the re-interment of Copernicus in Frombork Cathedral. The Mass was celebrated by Josef Kowalczyk, the papal nuncio and newly named Primate of Poland, accompanied by many church dignitaries.
Goddu said a hole was dug in the cathedral floor to accommodate the coffin. It was "a bit chaotic" as people jostled to get photographs as it was lowered, Goddu said. A concrete slab was placed on top, but a glass window allows visitors to see the spot where Copernicus is entombed, and a black granite tombstone stands alongside it.
The music was again memorable, Goddu said. The choir commissioned a new piece for the occasion and sang it again at a concert afterward, along with Mozart's Requiem.
Commemorative medals were distributed to the guests, including Goddu.
Goddu, who also teaches a course on science and religion at Stonehill, said it's important to use the perspective of history when viewing the controversies that followed the work of Copernicus and, later, Galileo.
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