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Penn State, University of Split partner to identify nun's remains

Sister Marija Krucifiksa Kozulić (1852–1922) is under consideration for beatification from the Vatican
23 March 2021
mitch holland and team in Croatia
Back row: Mitch Holland. Front row, left to right: Jen McElhoe, research assistant professor; Sidney Gaston-Sanchez, a co-author on the paper; Grace Marino; Teresa Tiedge. Photo taken in Split, Croatia in 2019. Credit: Mitch Holland

Penn State and Croatian faculty, including from the University’s partner the University of Split, recently collaborated on the identification of the remains of Sister Marija Krucifiksa Kozulić (1852–1922), a Croatian nun who is in consideration for beatification by the Vatican. The team of researchers consists of colleagues who have collaborated in the forensic sciences for years, including members of the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory in the United States.

Mitchell Holland, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology and forensic science in the Eberly College of Science, and Dragan Primorac, the former minister of science, education and sports of The Republic of Croatia and the first Penn State global ambassador, appointed in 2016, have been friends and colleagues for decades. Their friendship has led to collaborative projects between the two universities in a diverse area of fields, supported by seed grants from the Office of Global Programs. For more information on the partnership, see this Penn State News article.

Forensic science in particular has been an area of strong collaboration and has resulted in completion of the Sister Marija project.  

"I am grateful to the Office of Global Programs at Penn State for the continuous support of the collaboration between scientists from Penn State and the University of Split, resulting in a historical identification of Sister Marija and her biological sister Teresa almost 100 years after Sister Mary's burial,” said Primorac. “Sister Marija was the symbol of love and humanity, and all of us are happy that our data became crucial for the church to move forward with Sister Marija's beatification.”

“What we see in this forensic science project is exactly what we had hoped would happen — a collaboration that lives on,” according to Alexandra Persiko, strategic partnerships manager in Global Programs.

Sister Marija Krucifiksa Kozulić was a pious and generous nun from Croatia who dedicated her life to helping the poor and less fortunate, including running an orphanage on the island of Krk during World War I.

Upon her death, Sister Marija was buried in a tomb belonging to the Society of Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Rijeka, along with other nuns, including her sister, Tereza. A total of 52 individuals were known to be buried in the tomb based on historical records. On Feb. 20, 2011, these remains were exhumed for the purposes of Sister Marija’s identification.

sister and archbishop over tomb
Left to Right: Dragan Primorac; Sister Dobroslava Mlakic, who is a postulator in the process of beatification of Sister Marija; Archbishop Ivan Devcic. Photo taken immediately after the identification of the remains.  Credit: Dragan Primorac

The joint Penn State – Croatian team recently published an article on the process titled “A Forensic Genomics Approach for the Identification of Sister Marija Krucifiksa Kozulić.” The project proved to be highly complicated due to the co-mingling and poor condition of remains, such as porous bones. 

Despite these challenges, the researchers were successful due to the application of a new technique that allowed them to capture small fragments of the recovered DNA for sequence analysis. Even though the DNA findings could not tell the Kozulić sisters apart, as reference sources from each sister were unavailable, modern science proved to the researchers that the remains of the siblings were indeed found in the tomb, as they were matched to a reference sample from a distant paternal niece using a broad genomics approach.  

“[My students and I] were delighted to have been a part of this project with our partners in Croatia and here in the United States,” said Holland. “This was a textbook example of the collaborative work required to identify historical human remains. Sister Maria dedicated herself to a life of service, so her consideration for Sainthood is well deserved.”

The information gathered by the team will allow the church to move forward with the beatification of Sister Marija.