Physical connections to the divine

The liturgical year of the Byzantine Catholic Church begins Sept. 1 and, in Uniontown, Pa., the Sisters of St. Basil the Great celebrate with a Labor Day weekend pilgrimage honoring Our Lady of Perpetual Help.

The event at Mount St. Macrina has been held since 1934, when they celebrated the blessing of their new monastery. The theme was set in 1935 after Pope Pius XI gave the sisters an icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help and requested that they spread devotion to the Mother of God under that title.

It’s now the oldest and largest Byzantine Catholic pilgrimage in the United States and attracts up to 8,000 people from all over. The monastery and shrines also attract visitors year-round.

“They come because they’re able to connect with this holy place and with one another,” said Sister of St. Basil the Great Barbara Jean Mihalchick, monastery vocational director.

The pilgrimage opens with Matins Aug. 31 and closes with a candlelight procession Sept. 1. Both days have full schedules of liturgies, reconciliation, processions, vespers, prayers, anointing, children’s programs and opportunities to visit shrines, chapels and places for prayer.

Pilgrimages such as this one are rooted in Christian tradition from the Middle Ages, when the faithful took long and dangerous journeys to holy places. Contemporary Catholics have many more opportunities, and in the United States there are shrines and grottoes in nearly every state. In addition to Mount St. Macrina, the following three sites are worth checking out.

El Santuario de Chimayo

Thousands of pilgrims visit El Santuario de Chimayo in New Mexico on Good Friday. Photo by Father Julio Gonzalez, S.F.

With nearly 500,000 annual visitors, El Santuario de Chimayo has been called the “Lourdes of North America” and one of the most important pilgrimage sites in the world. Here in the high desert of northern New Mexico, 40,000 Christians come on Easter weekend alone, some walking long distances, carrying crosses and waiting for hours to get into the church.

On the last Sunday in August, Vietnamese communities from around the country come for their own celebration. Three years ago one community donated a statue of Our Lady of La Vang.

“It’s been an historical pilgrimage site for nearly 200 years,” said Joanne DuPont Sandoval, manager of the site. “People of all faiths and of no faith come, and many say that they find a kind of peace and sacredness in this simple, humble chapel that they don’t find elsewhere. People want some connection with the divine, and this is a physical, tangible way of entering into that.”

According to tradition, in 1810 a friar discovered a buried crucifix, known as Nuestro Señor de Esquipulas, on the site, and there followed miraculous occurrences. It’s said that to this day, people receive spiritual, physical and psychological healings, and many leave behind messages, pictures, small gifts and cast-off crutches. They also take away small amounts of Holy Dirt from the “el pocito” (little well) that many believe have curative powers. El Santuario de Chimayo is one of several sites in the Holy Pilgrimages of Northern New Mexico.

Solanus Casey Center

Solanus Casey
Brother Richard Merling anoints a woman at a blessing of the sick in St. Bonaventure Chapel. Courtesy of the Solanus Casey Center

About 300 people attend the blessing of the sick every Wednesday at St. Bonaventure Chapel of the Solanus Casey Center at St. Bonaventure Monastery in Detroit. The service is held next to the crypt of Venerable Solanus Casey (1870-1957), a Capuchin Franciscan friar who, because he didn’t do well in seminary studies, was not permitted to hear confessions nor preach doctrinal sermons.

Instead, Father Casey served in humble monastery positions and, in 1924, was sent to St. Bonaventure to be the porter and doorkeeper. In that lowly role he touched so many lives with prayers, charity, comfort and many reported healings. When he died, more than 20,000 people filed past his casket. His incorrupt body was later disinterred and transferred to the monastery, and he was placed on the path to sainthood in 1960.

“The draw here is Father Solanus,” said Capuchin Father Jim Hast, assistant director of the center. “Some people come for the blessing every week, and others come for a pilgrimage and stay for the blessing.”

The center and chapel are open daily, except on major holidays. Prearranged pilgrimages include a tour of the center, a movie on the life of Father Solanus, and an opportunity for confession and Mass. A blessing service also is held on the fourth Sunday of the month.

Grotto of Redemption

When Paul Matthias Dobberstein (1872-1954) was a seminarian, he became critically ill, prayed to God and the Blessed Mother, and promised to build a shrine in her honor if he recovered.

Grotto of Redemption
Grotto of the Redemption. Courtesy of the Grotto of the Redemption

The promise became the block-long Grotto of the Redemption near Sts. Peter and Paul Church in West Bend, Iowa, where Father Dobberstein was pastor for 57 years. Beginning in 1912, the priest built nine scenes from the life of Christ in an extraordinary geological setting.

“He started collecting rocks around 1900, and when people heard about his vision, they sent things from all over the world,” said Mary Straub Lavell, executive director of the shrine. “When you walk into one grotto and look up at the ceiling, 30 feet of it is done in beautiful crystal. You can’t imagine it unless you see it.”

The outdoor grotto was built with Italian marble, petrified wood, minerals like quartz and calcite, and precious and semi-precious stones like rubies, sapphires and pearls.

“It’s amazing from a geological point of view,” Lavelle said. But the main draw for 40,000 visitors a year, she added, is “a spiritual experience.”

In one grotto, Mary holds Baby Jesus out to the world. In another, Christ suffers in the Garden of Gethsemane. Still another honors the Holy Trinity. In June, 2,600 visitors of all ages came from 32 states and 13 countries. The outdoor grotto is open daily year-round, is pet friendly and has a campsite. 

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.

Holy Places
Our Lady of Perpetual Help Shrine: 500 W. Main St., Uniontown, Pa.; (412) 438-7149;
El Santuario de Chimayo: 15 Santuario Dr., Chimayo, N.M.; (505) 351-9961;
St. Bonaventure Chapel: 1820 Mt Elliott St., Detroit, Mich.; (313) 579-2100;