Josef Toufar (Credit: Courtesy of T. Pexa, J. Krasja, M. Šaňková, P. Velemínský, J. Havrda, T. Kotrlý and J. Drábek, CC BY-NC-ND 4.0,

During a holy Mass on the third Sunday of Advent, on Dec. 11, 1949, in the Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary in Číhošť southeast of Prague, a miracle was reported.

The half-meter iron crucifix on the main altar above the tabernacle was said to have moved on its own several times—and 19 parishioners said they saw it, reporting it to the parish priest, Josef Toufar. Toufar dutifully reported to the regime’s Communist State Security Service.

A month later, the 47-year-old holy man was taken into custody, imprisoned, tortured with beatings and no water, until Toufar signed a confession saying he had staged the miracle using cables and leverage. After more torture, and staging a falsified reconstruction of the event for state film cameras, Toufar died. His surviving family would not know of his death for years, however—and they were never told the exact location of his final resting place.

In 2013, the Czech Bishops’ Conference approved the process of beatification of the priest, who had become a martyr figure in the decades since the fall of the Iron Curtain. But there was a problem: the process requires the remains.

Enter advanced DNA—and a solution to the problem, as reported in the journal Forensic Science International.

A niece had search for the remains since 1954—and all the leads led to a particular shaft of a mass grave at the Dablice Cemetery—and a false name that was close: Josef Zouhar.

Mass grave in Ďáblice cemetery. (Credit: Courtesy of T. Pexa, J. Krasja, M. Šaňková, P. Velemínský, J. Havrda, T. Kotrlý and J. Drábek, CC BY-NC-ND 4.0,

The cemetery had been the site of 70 mass graves with layer upon layer of coffins that held the remains of resistors to the Nazis and Communists alike, along with stillborn children and even just anatomic waste.

The investigators, including those from the National Museum and National Heritage Institute in Prague, started with family reference samples: buccal swabs from a niece, grand-niece and grand-nephew.

The burial records indicated the false name—and a precise location of the coffin, which showed certain distinctive holy burial markers. The archaeologists could not use images of the skull to reconstruct the face for identification, since the skull was completely fragmented.

But they extracted DNA from the left femur, using a bone saw, a washing and drying process, and then powderizing using a bonemill. DNA was extract in three replicates from the NucleoSpin Trace kit made by Macherey-Nagel.

Purported left thigh bone of Josef Toufar. (Credit: Courtesy of T. Pexa, J. Krasja, M. Šaňková, P. Velemínský, J. Havrda, T. Kotrlý and J. Drábek, CC BY-NC-ND 4.0,

A real-time PCR approach Plexor HY made by Promega was used to determine the quantity of DNA.

Promega’s PowerPlex ESX17 and then the PowerPlex Y26 kit were used to assess the autosomal DNA available, and make comparisons. The Y-STR between the bones and the puported grand-nephew were genotyped by the PowerPlex Y23.

Between the autosomal results of the two females, and the Y-STR comparisons between the two males, they conclusively identified the remains of the murdered priest, they report.

The team mentions they could have used next-generation sequencing (NGS, or alternatively massively-parallel sequencing, MPS)—but had not yet validated that method for their own use.

The bones were sealed into a silver coffin, and transferred back to Číhošť. A funeral with the surviving family and the top Roman Catholic officials, along with thousands of pilgrims, was held in the town on July 12, 2015. The coffin was then placed in the nave of the church where the faithful said they had seen a cross move one night 66 years earlier.