Several weeks before Christmas, my family visits one of our favorite local holiday-light displays. However, at this display you won’t find the usual smiling snowmen, jolly Santas and frolicking elves that you find at most holiday exhibits. No, this showcase of holiday lights has the courage to boldly depict the true meaning of the season — the birth of Jesus Christ — by featuring the Holy Family, St. Nicholas, angels, and other religious-themed displays.
The wonderful display is found at the National Shrine Basilica of Our Lady of Fatima in Lewiston, N.Y., about seven miles north of Niagara Falls. The 15-acre sanctuary is dedicated to the Gospel message urged by our Blessed Mother in Fatima, Portugal, in 1917. The shrine was built by the Barnabite Fathers, an Italian order, in 1954. From the Saturday before Thanksgiving to the Sunday after the Epiphany, the shrine is transformed into a wonderland of lighted displays.
The centerpiece of the shrine is the dome-shaped basilica, which depicts the northern hemisphere of the globe. On top of the dome, which is actually one of the best places to view the lights, is a 13-foot granite statue of Our Lady of Fatima. Also on the grounds are 130 life-size marble and bronze statues of saints.
Father Julio Ciavaglia, the shrine’s rector, who is the mastermind behind the Festival of Lights, says Christmas is his favorite season: “It’s the season that brought me into the light of Christ.”
As a young boy, he looked forward to helping his mother set up the Nativity set at Christmastime and was intrigued by all the different figures that were part of the set. Fast-forward to early 1990; as a priest, Father Ciavaglia began to feel disappointment and frustration about the growing secularization of Christmas rather than its celebration as a truly religious occasion. He noted that the then-popular Festival of Lights event in nearby Niagara Falls featured many secular displays; however, he observed that the Nativity set was often set up in an obscure part of the festival.
He thought it would be nice to have a display to get people in the mood for Christmas while at the same time reminding them that Christ is the reason for the season. So, in 1991, he decided to start the religious-themed Festival of Lights at the shrine. “It could almost be considered a rebellion against the commercialism of Christmas,” said Father Ciavaglia.
What makes the displays at the shrine unique is that almost all the items on display have been designed by Father Ciavaglia and built by the shrine’s maintenance staff, including Brian Brant, whom the priest describes as “a wonderful employee sent to me by God.” Brant welds the metal together, cuts the wood, and strings the lights onto the frames. “I design it, and he makes it,” said Father Ciavaglia.
For example, the year that they created a camel for the light display, a huge sheet of paper was pinned to the cafeteria wall so that Father Ciavaglia could spend weeks designing and drawing it. When it was done, Brant took the sketch to the shrine’s studio and turned it into a 3-D work of art.
In 2007, when they added the landmark star, entitled “Come Follow Me,” located at the corner of Swann and Creek Roads, Brian did all the ironwork and welding, as well as the electrical work.
They started working on this year’s display in July. Father Ciavaglia wouldn’t reveal the exact design, as it is always kept under wraps until the lights go on the first night of the festival. However, he did give me a hint that “people can come and have their photo taken with the Three Kings.” The display will be worked on every day for several weeks prior to the beginning of the festival.
To date, there are close to 90 different displays on the grounds, encompassing about half of the shrine’s 15 acres. “I try to make the displays educational and include explanations as to what the lights are about,” said Father Ciavaglia.
There are many Christian symbols incorporated into the displays. For example, the cross, the anchor and the heart with crosses are symbols of the three theological virtues — faith, hope and charity — and a triangle with an eye is a symbol of the omnipresence of God.
Another display, the Tree of Jesse, illustrates the genealogy of Jesus. Other displays include 28-foot panels honoring the mysteries of the Rosary, a Sept. 11 Fatima Madonna, and a lighted image of a guardian angel. One of the first displays created was a giant lighted Nativity scene with a nine-foot angle hovering over the Holy Family.
A steady stream of visitors from both the United States and Canada visit the shrine each holiday season. “There are a lot of people who make an annual visit to the shrine a family custom,” Father Ciavaglia said. “It gets them into the holiday spirit, and it prepares them to celebrate Christmas in a faithful way.”
Christine A. Smyczynski writes from Getzville, New York.
National Shrine Basilica of Our Lady of Fatima
1023 Swann Rd.
The Festival of Lights takes place each night from 5-9pm Nov. 19-Jan. 8.