Seven round satellite dishes on the lawn at EWTN's studios in Irondale, Ala., face the heavens — conduits between a vibrant Catholic ministry and the world.
An hour's drive north, in Hanceville, another circular “bridge” between heaven and earth lifts visitors' hearts higher still.
Situated in a dazzling gold monstrance nearly eight feet tall, the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist — body, blood, soul and divinity — draws 2,000 visitors each week, including many non-Catholics, to the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament at Our Lady of the Angels Monastery.
Everything about the shrine, including its remote, rural location, is designed to prepare the pilgrim for a rich spiritual encounter with the Lord. There will be few better places to spend Holy Thursday, April 12, anniversary of the Last Supper, at which Jesus instituted the Blessed Sacrament.
‘Build Me a Temple’
The shrine's property is marked by a white picket fence that begins while you're still nearly two miles from the church. As we drove over the final hill and caught our first glimpse of the edifice across the fields, I remarked to my wife, “It looks just like Assisi,” which we visited six years ago.
The shrine, in fact, was modeled after Assisi's 13th-century churches. A separate structure, Castle San Miguel, situated across the piazza from the shrine, bears the appearance of a 13th-century castle. Due to be completed by Easter, it will house a gift shop, great hall and conference center, and offer catering for the many groups that visit.
The idea for the shrine came to EWTN's founder, Mother Angelica, during a 1995 trip to Latin America as she was announcing the beginning of the network's Spanish television and radio service. Our tour guide, Franciscan Brother John Marie, explained it to us: “While visiting the sanctuary of the Divino NiÑo Jesús in Bogota, Mother Angelica approached the tiny statue of the Divine Child Jesus. The figure appeared to her as if it were alive, turned to her and said, ‘Build me a temple and I will help those who help you.’ Mother Angelica was moved to tears.”
Upon her return to Alabama, Mother Angelica shared the experience with her fellow Poor Clares and they set to work trying to locate property.
“Everything seemed to happen in threes,” said Brother John. “The 380 acres upon which the shrine sits was originally three pieces of property, each sold individually. And the isolated farmland on which the shrine sits is surrounded on three sides by three different rivers.”
The size of the property ensures that it will shelter the shrine and monastery from the inevitable commercialism that ends up surrounding most popular shrines.
Construction began five years ago and was generously financed through donations from five anonymous, outof-state benefactor families who were troubled by the state of Church architecture in their home dioceses. The majority of construction took place during the three years leading up to the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000. In fact, three significant items found inside the shrine were completed during each of the three years.
The monstrance was created in 1997, the year dedicated to Jesus Christ. The Rose Window of the Holy Spirit, located on the far side of the Church, was created in 1998, the year dedicated to the Holy Spirit. The Rose Window of God the Father, located above the shrine's main entrance, was completed in 1999, the year of the Father. The monastery was blessed on Aug. 6, 1999. The upper church was consecrated on Dec. 19, 1999, and the Lower Church was completed on July 19, 2000.
Perpetual Maundy Thursday
Naturally, the Divine Child Jesus figures prominently at the shrine. A white marble statue of the young Christ, holding a heart of red jasper in his left hand, stands in the center of the piazza; the young Lord's arms are outstretched in a welcoming gesture of love. Written in English, Spanish, Italian and German is a prophetic Scripture verse from Isaiah 11:6, “…and a little Child shall lead them.”
Of the statue Mother Angelica has said, “I thought this would be a deterrent to women desiring an abortion. The childhood of Jesus, the statue itself, would affect them in some way that they would change their mind. I hope that placing the statue in the piazza would enflame the hearts of women to change their minds and hearts from slaughter to life.”
While the exterior of the shrine is a thing of beauty in its own right, the interior is nothing less than breathtaking. Filled with marble from the Italian Alps, Sicily, Macedonia, Spain, Brazil, South Africa and Finland, it could hardly be mistaken for anything other than a place of reverence for God. Gold leaf is everywhere. The dark woodwork found in the pews and the intricately carved confessionals provide a stark contrast to the shrine's white marble walls and vaulted ceiling.
Behind the altar, a hand-carved reredos of cedar from Paraguay rises 55 feet over the floor. It is ornamented with 24-carat gold and holds the gold monstrance. A side chapel, known as the Cloistered Mass Choir, is located on the right of the altar. Situated behind a gold leaf enclosure grille, it is where the community's nuns attend the Celebration of the Eucharist. Opposite the enclosure, on the left hand side of the altar, stands a life-size — and life-like — crucifix.
The traditional artwork, which includes statuary and a 3-dimensional Stations of the Cross, reminds the pilgrim that nothing is too good when it comes to glorifying God, who made it all anyway.
Large windows along both sides of the church are dedicated to the mysteries of the rosary — the glorious along the right and the joyful opposite. Up above, encircling the entire church, are stained-glass windows from which lovely angels look on. The window above the front entrance depicts God the Father. A window on the far side depicts the Holy Spirit as a dove. Brother John Marie explained that, if you look at the shrine as a whole, you'll see the persons of the Trinity being adored by the angels — “just like in heaven.”
Our pilgrimage to the Shrine of the Blessed Sacrament was highlighted by an impromptu visit with none other than Mother Angelica herself (one of the nice little perks of appearing as a guest on an EWTN show — in my case, “The Journey Home” with Marcus Grodi). During our conversation, Mother commented that at least 50% of the shrine's visitors are non-Catholics. She told us of a Baptist bus driver who occasionally drops in. “When times get tough I come out here,” she recalls the man telling her. “Sometimes I just sit on the steps.”
“Although he can't vocalize it,” said Mother Angelica, “he senses the Real Presence. It draws him.”
Features correspondent Tim Drake welcomes e-mail at email@example.com.