As northern New Jersey stretches away from New York City and Newark, its landscape alternates between suburban and rural. Five decades ago, the Blue Army, an organization dedicated to spreading the Marian messages of Fatima, marched this route from Plainfield, N.J., to the town of Washington. There, near the Pennsylvania border, they would build the Shrine of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, replanting their co-founder John Haffert's 115 acres of farmland with liturgical activities and devotions such as Mass, confession, the rosary, and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.

Through the years, the shrine has borne rich spiritual harvests for pilgrims making the journey. The grounds of the shrine are replete with places for prayer and reflection, but the focal point is the Immaculate Heart of Mary chapel, completed in 1979.

From the road, sweeping lawns roll toward this chapel shaped in a 20th-century design. Its roof rises into a 145-foot-high central tower that takes the shape of a crown — a reminder that Mary is Queen of Heaven and of the faithful. At the top, a bronze statue of the Immaculate Heart proffers a rosary and scapular.

Beneath the statue, the tower, which represents Mary's mantle, flows down over the 1,400-seat octagonal chapel connoting that the Mother protects her children who gather under it. Inside, pilgrims recall and reflect upon the ever-fresh messages Mary had given to the Portuguese shepherd children — Lucia, Francisco, and Jacinta — in 1917. The Blue Army, which celebrated its golden anniversary last year, exists to promote the messages of Our Lady of Fatima, acting in apostolic response to Vatican II's universal call to holiness of the laity.

At Fatima, Mary gave spiritual directives for laypeople that correspond with the Vatican II counsels: pray the rosary daily, meditating on its mysteries; offer all the hardships that come in fulfilling our daily duties as sacrifices for the reparation of sin; stop offending Jesus; have special devotion to the Immaculate Heart.

The Blue Army was founded at St. Mary's Church in Plainfield, N.J., to promote this message and devotion by Msgr. Harold Colgan 30 years after the Fatima apparitions. He asked everyone to wear something blue — a declaration of devotion to the Immaculate Heart. Hence, the name Blue Army.

The shrine is a great center for confession. The Sacrament of Reconciliation is offered all day long on major feasts. It is not uncommon for those long absent from its graces to return to them here.

These major days include Mary's feasts, and the 13th of the month, especially from May to October, when pilgrims arrive in cars and busses, for which the shrine is always well prepared.

From the chapel, it is a lovely 20-plus minute stroll to the Holy House, U.S.A., a replica of the original Holy House of Nazareth.

Along the wide path, people can admire the landscape, enjoy the fresh air, and meditate at several wayside shrines, such as the Reflecting Pond with Guardian Angel of the United States — modeled after the Guardian Angel of Portugal who appeared to the seers at Fatima.

Off this Marian Walk is the Caphelina, U.S.A., an exact replica of the Chapel at Fatima on the site of Mary's apparitions, to honor Our Lady of the Rosary. Inside this open-air chapel is another replica, the Pilgrim Virgin statue carried in Fatima processions. Plans call for a granite circle around the Caphelina for pilgrims to imitate Lucia who, in response to her mother being cured, thanked the Blessed Mother by circling the Caphelina on her knees.

The Blue Army shrine seeks to imitate the Fatima shrine as much as possible. But one inspiring reproduction acts in combination with Loreto, Italy, site of the shrine of the original Holy House of Nazareth. The replica here, dedicated in 1973, duplicates the Holy House dimensions and is likely the only one of its kind having an actual stone from the original pulverized and mixed with the mortar used.

Inside the chapel are also relics of the True Cross and of the oak tree where Mary appeared at Fatima.

Statues inside and out present the Immaculate Heart and commemorate the appearance of the Holy Family during the 1917 miracle of the sun. Next to the Holy House is the Rosary Garden, a beautiful woodland walk with all 15 mysteries in marble plaques and life-sized statues well spaced for quiet prayer and reflection. Even landscaping, such as the dog-woods with cruciform flowers in spring, and evergreens symbolizing eternal life, subtly recall the mysteries.

Among the many devotions, all-night prayer vigils that include Masses and adoration are held from First Friday into First Saturdays. Bishops regularly participate in the many scheduled events that include various ethnic days. Pilgrims are also welcome at the Blue Army National Center offices. The Shrine has a well-stocked gift shop and a concession stand opened for groups.

Nearby is an array of restaurants, from diners to pizza parlors and fast food. Major motel chains are a short drive for extended visits to the Shrine.

About 80 miles west of New York City and 68 miles north of Philadelphia, the shrine can be reached from Interstate 78 (exit 17) to Route 31 N to Washington, or via Interstate 80 (exit 19) to Route 517 S, then Route 57 W, to Washington and Route 31. Watch for Blue Army signs. Take Route 632 for one mile, Cemetery Hill Road for one mile, and Mountain View Road to the shrine.

On May 13, the feast of Our Lady of Fatima, the International Pilgrim Virgin Statue from Fatima will be at the shrine. For more information, call the shrine at 908-689-1701.

Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.