Orlando! It's top of the list when it comes to favorite tourist destinations. A million visitors a year can't be wrong. But as holiday-minded folks zip from one theme park to another, they may not realize that Mary's newest shrine in the United States is right in their midst. It's also one of the largest.
The shrine of Mary, Queen of the Universe, is only two hours by car from the first and oldest sanctuary in the country, Our Lady of La Leche in St. Augustine.
Located on Vineland Avenue, Mary, Queen of the Universe is visible as you motor along nearby Interstate 4, a major route stretching between Florida's east and west coasts. However, the property's border of trees when fully grown into a thick screen, will provide shield from the traffic in the near future and allow for even greater tranquillity.
Pilgrims find Mary, Queen of the Universe Shrine easily. During Holy Week and Easter last year, more than 36,000 worshippers attended the Masses. Some of the Masses attracted more than 4,000 to the church already built with a capacity to seat 2,000 with standing room for an additional 1,500.
“Every Easter is a phenomenon,” marvels Father F. Joseph Harte, director and founder of the shrine. At the height of the season, between January and Easter, pews are often full—a hopeful sign that faith isn't left at home once vacation time arrives.
Father Harte began his ministry for tourists in 1975 while pastor of the Holy Family Catholic Church. He traveled from hotel to hotel, bringing the sacraments. But something permanent had to be built as the area developed.
“What do you do with a city of people that changes all the time?” he asked. His answer: Build a shrine, since, “ it's not a parish church” but “a place of devotion” that is “open to the whole world. It's a place where people come to pray.” The universality is directly reflected in the shrine's name.
The vision for the shrine was in place from the beginning, with the blessing and support of the local bishop. As the project evolved, the concrete results surpassed any plans imagined.
“It was envisioned to be beautiful; it wasn't envisioned to be as beautiful as it turned out,” says Father Harte. “You see, the Lord does his own work.…”
True to the original plan, the shrine encompasses the intended peace and tranquillity in the midst of theme park activity. And the grounds, as far as possible, said Father Harte, reflect the glory of God. Fountains on either side of the bridge that leads to the church add to the serenity.
“Devotion to Mary helped build this shrine,” the priest continues, adding that as Queen of the Universe, the Virgin “brings together all people and places of the world into one community under God”—another reason for honoring her in this shrine. The four-year-old church is modeled on the Basilica of Constantine, the first Christian church in Rome, now the site of St. Peter's. Although the design is close in style and size to the original, the white stucco exterior and tile roofs are also comfortably in keeping with Florida architectural sensibilities.
The interior is both open and bright. The narthex itself has a capacity for 1,000 people and the architectural details are beautifully symbolic. There is the sweeping wooden arch-way representing the gateway typical of all ancient cities. Here, of course, people are entering the City of God.
The large mahogany and multi-marbled holy water fountain stands in front of it, while polished granite rings on the floor circle out, like waters rippling toward the nave and altar.
There are two prominent images of Christ on either side of the interior. The life-size figure of the crucified Christ over the altar presents Jesus with a tranquil face at the moment he commends his spirit to the Father. As people turn to leave, they see the victorious Christ, carved from linden wood, coming from the cloth wrappings and the tomb.
In the open sanctuary with its Portuguese rose marble, there is a white ash altar with bronze legs. The centered tabernacle is highly polished rare Brazilian wood. Materials from different countries are also joined together in a simple and symbolic beauty.
Of the 16 Magnificat windows which line both aisles, 15 depict the mysteries of the rosary, and like visitors to the shrine, the glass has come from all over the world. The century-old Judson Studios in Pasadena, Calif., began work on the windows in 1983.
Here too, the old and the new are brought together for the glory of God, such as in the stations of the cross both inspiring and magnificent, which are finely detailed, mid-19th century oil paintings by a Belgian artist. The sanctuary lamp with angels was sculpted in Holland more than 100 years ago.
Each day devotions begin with Holy Mass, usually offered in Our Lady of Guadalupe chapel off the narthex. Abeautiful Italian mosaic of Mary under this title that was recently completed in Rome has been installed.
Perpetual Adoration takes place daily in a chapel behind the main altar. As Father Harte stresses: “The mark of every shrine to Our Lady is devotion to the Eucharist.” And confessions also take place each day, giving many of the tourists who come the opportunity for reconciliation.
Outdoors, the Mother and Child chapel portrays the images of Mary with a young Jesus in a playful mood. On the opposite side of the church is the Rosary Garden with its statue of Our Lady, which was made in 1875 and previously was kept in a convent in Holland. During the two World Wars, many people prayed before the statue for peace. Also in the garden, an oak tree and a pine tree called the “marriage trees” grow together in the same spot—their roots intertwined, a natural symbol of people living in peace and interdependence.
Last month, a new museum of religious art opened next to the gift shop. The center piece is a painting of the Immaculate Conception by Murillo. Father Harte hopes to get displays fromthe Vatican for people who can't visit Rome. He sees the entire shrine as a “work of art” and developed that way architecturally so as to “inspire minds and hearts to God. That's what the shrine is all about.”
Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Conn.