Joseph Pronechen is staff writer with the National Catholic Register since 2005. His articles have appeared in a number of national publications including Columbia magazine, Soul, Faith and Family, Catholic Digest, and Marian Helper. His religion features have also appeared in Fairfield County Catholic and in one of Connecticut’s largest news dailies. He holds an MS degree and formerly taught English and courses in film study that he developed at a Catholic high school in Connecticut. Joseph and his wife Mary reside on the East Coast.
When Bernadette Conklin came to practice the faith more fully through the Divine Mercy devotion and then to consecrate herself to Jesus through Mary in 2009, she didn’t realize what it would lead to.
“The very next week after Easter when I attended the Divine Mercy Sunday celebration,” she said, “the words ‘There needs to be a greater devotion to Jesus within the womb of Mary’ were resonating in my soul for days.”
In short order Conklin would be inspired to begin her Preborn Jesus Ministry (PrebornJesus.com) in the Pittsburgh area, to bring to fruition a new icon called Vessel of the Preborn Jesus, and then to follow it with a statue combining the ministry and a specific role of our Blessed Mother in a unique statue called Mary, Ark of The New Covenant.
The inspiration took form when she promised to pray a Rosary for a girl she heard was considering abortion. The girl changed her mind. Conklin began making handmade rosaries for such girls letting them know people were praying for them. She said, “The Rosary wraps the baby in prayer.”
Conklin asked her son James to draw an image of Mary for the ministry showing Jesus within Mary’s womb. Since he needed a model of a baby, Conklin said God provided the answer as her search turned up pictures of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mother and Child in High Italian Renaissance. Among the images Da Vinci sketched was a study of a 9-month old in the womb.
That same year in July, while praying the Angelus during a holy hour in church, Conklin said, “The image came in my mind’s eye of the umbilical cord around Jesus, the physical lifeline between mother and child. Slowly, the umbilical cord turned into the Rosary. The Rosary is the spiritual umbilical cord of prayer, which is the spiritual lifeline in the battle between Mary and the evil one.”
From James’ initial sketch, her artist friend Lea Ravotti completed a watercolor called Vessel of the Preborn Jesus. Conklin said the Archdiocese of St, Louis Respect Life Apostolate used it for their prolife ministry. This image has been used in pregnancy care centers and appears on prayer cards from PrebornJesus.com.
“This is about a devotion to Jesus in the womb of Mary, an aspect of his life we haven’t contemplated enough,” Conklin said. “It helps us realize so many truths about the sanctity of life and Mary’s role in God’s plan.”
Step to the Statue
Then in 2011, reading Scott Hahn’s description of Mary as the Ark of the Covenant in his book Hail Holy Queen, Conklin realized how Mary is the first tabernacle.
She also spotted the Catechism reference (2676): “Mary, in whom the Lord himself has just made his dwelling, is the daughter of Zion in person, the Ark of the Covenant, the place where the glory of the Lord dwells. She is “the dwelling of God…with men.”
Putting all this together with symbols from the Miraculous Medal she wears and from Our Lady of Guadalupe together with the image of Vessel of the Preborn Jesus, Conklin was inspired to have a unique statue of Mary Ark of The New Covenant made.
“Then on the feast of Corpus Christi in 2013 I received the inspiration that the base of the statue would be the Ark of the Covenant since Mary perfects the Old Testament ark,” she said, referring to Revelation 11:19, 12:1. “She is leading the battle as the ark led the Israelites in the battle of Jericho. We need Our Lady now, more than ever in the battles we are fighting.”
Both the apostolate and honoring Mary as the Ark of the New Covenant were joined together in one statue with two main features. First, nine-month old Jesus is totally visible in the womb of the Virgin Mary with the Rosary encircling him in the womb. Second, Mary is atop the Ark of the Covenant from the Old Testament, superseding it as the New Ark.
She said other details add to the meaning such as the 12 stars on Mary’s crown, each Swarovski crystal star a different color, recall the Old Testament priestly garment which had different precious stones that represented the 12 tribes of Israel, and then the 12 Apostles.
“Within a couple of days I was at a new prayer group and had to duck out quickly to pick up my son,” she recalled. She left Preborn Jesus holy cards for each woman. Before she got into her car, a woman rushed out after seeing the card, asked if she could make a statue, listened to Conklin’s hopes and details, and said she would “underwrite the whole cost for it.”
The original two-and-a-half foot wooden statue was carved by Douglas Vasko and blessed on May 31, 2014, the feast of the Visitation, after which the statue began making many visits to churches, nursing homes, and pro-life venues.
Statue Travels and Duplicates
That September, Conklin was invited to bring the statue to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception to be placed in the sanctuary for the 22nd International Week of Prayer and Fasting.
Then people asked Conklin to have a replica of the state made. With these requests and help from Adam Miller of the A.T. Merhaut Inc. in Allison Park, Penn., a three-foot replica was made in Columbia, South America, blessed on Feb. 22, 2015, then began traveling, including stops like the 40 Days for Life in Pittsburgh. This statue was then followed by requests for a 16 inch statue (available through Merhaut’s).
Later that year at the Defending the Faith Conference in Steubenville, Ohio Conklin providentially met a new congregation in the diocese called Family of Jacopa from Mary Ark of the Covenant Monastery.
Naturally, the sisters were immediately drawn to both the statue and the image of Preborn Jesus and want to use the sacred art work at their Marian Shrine.
“It’s amazing how God works,” Conklin said. “Bishop Jeffrey Monforton [of Steubenville] looked over the prayer we have, which the sisters presented him for use, and granted it an imprimatur.”
Then taking Mary, Ark of The New Covenant quickly from a speaking engagement at Legatus in Pittsburgh to a Eucharistic conference at Ave Maria University, “She was in her own seat on the plane,” Conklin said. “Best yet, she melted hearts. The woman at the ticket counter came rushing over to see the statue and said, with tears streaming down her face, ‘I really need this today after my night last night.’”
On the plane, the crew treated Our Lady with special affection and reverence and wanted their photos taken with her, right down to the Captain.
Conklin also brought the story to EWTN viewers as a guest on Father Andrew Apostoli’s Sunday Night Prime (see here).
“A picture speaks a thousand words — and so can an icon or a statue,” Steve Ray of CatholicConvert.com explains. “A well-crafted and theologically astute statue can open eyes and hearts to deep theological and spiritual insights. The exceptional new statue of the Preborn Christ in the womb of Mary, Ark of the New Covenant is a good example.”
Ray adds, “The statue of Preborn Jesus in Mary’s womb — as she stands upon, and supersedes the Ark of the Old Covenant — will help many Catholics and non-Catholics alike to see beyond the curtain of the here and now to discover the amazing eternal truths of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Son of God in her womb. As a result we will, as Mary prophesied ‘call her blessed’ (Luke 1:48).”
Looking upon the Preborn Jesus in the womb of Mary, helps us realize the profound implications of life within the womb. “We see the little human life in her womb — 100% human and 100% divine. Though the baby Jesus has not seen the light of day, nor breathed fresh air with his infant lungs, yet he is very alive and very human. This is not just extraneous tissue in the woman’s body that can be discarded. This is truly human life, God himself and of infinite value. Every baby shares in the image of God and true humanity with inestimable value long before it takes its first breath — right from the moment of conception.”
Ray concludes, “The beautiful statue of Preborn Jesus in the womb of the Ark of the New Covenant is worthy of meditation and contemplation as we are amazed at the work of God in a young Jewish girl who fulfilled with her Son so many prefigured images of the Old Covenant and who participated in the New Covenant and the salvation of mankind.”
Father Joseph Mele, episcopal vicar for leadership development for the Pittsburgh diocese and chaplain of the Legatus chapter shared powerful insights. “What is unique about the ministry and the image both is its faithfulness to Scripture and the Catechism. The role of Our Lady in salvation is premiere…”
Father Mele offered this surprising perception. With prayer and meditation before the statue, “I am sure not only will women be moved by all that is hidden in this mystery, but so will men. It is like what I see over and over when I am waiting with a family for the delivery of a child. Some of the most tender tears I see are the tears of the dad.” That moment moves the father closer than ever to the baby’s mother.
“The image of the Vessel of the Preborn Jesus will inspire men to be more fully human than ever,” believes Father Mele, “and in that humanity we will glorify God the Father in the deepest ways possible.”
Divine Mercy and Mary the Ark
There was yet another image to join this ministry as Conklin’s Preborn Jesus Ministry together with Jesus -The Divine Mercy Foundation combined the statue and Jesus, The Divine Mercy in one image. Collaborating with Conklin, friend Pat Polachek contacted Father Seraphim Michalenko, former vice-postulator of St. Faustina’s cause for canonization, to entitle it. He did with a threefold title: The Virgin Mary of Nazareth, Ark of The New Covenant, Throne of The Divine Mercy Incarnate.” He also included a profound teaching.
Then for the Jubilee Year to further emphasize God’s mercy, the faces of the aborted babies were added within the Divine Mercy rays for a new Pro-Life Divine Mercy Icon. Reproductions were recently blessed by Bishop Edward Malesic of the Diocese of Greensburg, Penn., and Father Mele.
For the opening of the Jubilee Year of Mercy, Conklin, Polachek and others in their group gifted Pope Francis the Pro-Life Divine Mercy Icon and 16-inch statue Mary, Ark of The New Covenant through his appointee at his Wednesday audience in Rome. Their gifts also included customized liturgical vestments with Mary, Ark of The New Covenant.
Conklin emphasized how Jesus told a woman in Argentina in a recently approved apparition, “In the past, the world was saved by the Ark of Noah. Today my mother is the Ark…”
“The statue helps those who don’t understand Mary’s role to start to love her and have a greater devotion to her and come on board with the battle,” Conklin concludes. “It’s always Our Lady who brings us to Jesus.”