Hector Morales pressed his hands against the bronze and glass casket and knelt quietly in front of the life-size statue of St. John Bosco enclosed inside.
Morales stood up and crossed himself. Behind him more than a hundred worshippers stood patiently in line. Some had pulled out cell phones and were snapping photos.
"This is an amazing experience," said Morales, 16, a student at Salesian High School in New Rochelle. "Don Bosco is like a father to us. At school we pray to him every night."
Morales was one of an estimated 5,000 Roman Catholic faithful and clergy, including Archbishop Timothy Dolan, who traveled to the Marian Shrine and Don Bosco Retreat Center on Thursday to catch a glimpse of the religious object, which contains parts of the saint's right hand.
The actual relic is enclosed in a silver-plated box placed inside the statue.
The founder of the Salesians, John Bosco, also known as Don Bosco, devoted his life to helping neglected and exploited boys in Turin, Italy. He lived from 1815 to 1888 and was canonized in 1934.
Addressing the packed church pews, Dolan said his own veneration of Don Bosco dated to his days as a student growing up in Ballwin, Mo., in the 1950s. Dolan asked visitors to use the opportunity of seeing the relic to declare and reaffirm their faith.
"Don Bosco saw everybody as good even when they looked bad," he said. "What an inspiration to us today."
Modern Salesians focus on the needs of youth through teaching and the operation of recreation clubs in conjunction with parish work. Several visitors to the shrine said the relic was a powerful symbol of their devotion.
The nun who taught Dolan in grade school, Sister Mary Bosco, had flown in from Ireland for the occasion. She described Thursday as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to pray in front of her saintly namesake.
"I'm grateful," Bosco said. "This is my first time to see him."
Mary Wolff came wearing a T-shirt with St. Bosco's image emblazoned on it. The Westchester native said her veneration of the patron saint of youths had started early — at a Catholic summer camp.
"It's sort of like getting together with an old friend," Wolff said. "I was so impressed with St. Bosco's joy and goodness."
The St. Bosco relic is on a five-year worldwide tour that will end in Italy in January 2014. The relic is headed to St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City on Friday and Saturday.