In 1964, the Franciscan Friars of Transylvania, displaced by the communist regime of Hungary, inaugurated the Shrine of Our Lady Comforter of the Afflicted in Youngstown, Ohio.
At first, mostly Hungarian immigrants flocked to it. But soon, pilgrims from all ethnic backgrounds embraced this shrine, and they continue to do so today.
The shrine gave the friars an opportunity to establish, in their new country, the devotion to the Madonna of Csiksomlyo (chi-CHOme-oh) that they carried in their hearts when forced to flee their native land. (Transylvania itself has been the focus of border quarrels over the centuries; it is now part of Romania.)
Three strong reminders of the shrine's Hungarian heritage set the spiritual tone here. One of them is the oversize monument honoring St. Stephen of Hungary, that country's first king and its first monarch to be canonized.
Born in 925, he was crowned king by a papal emissary in 1001. After he died on the feast of the Assumption in 1038, miracles were reported at his tomb.
This granite statue and a coat of arms showing Stephen's crown surmounted by a bent cross were the main features in the Hungarian pavilion at the 1939 New York World's Fair. Because of the outbreak of World War II, they stayed in this country and were eventually acquired by a Protestant millionaire. Decades later, when he heard the Transylvanian friars were building this shrine to the Madonna of Csiksomlyo, he donated both pieces to them. The coat of arms now decorates the shrine's chapel.
Across from the statue of St. Stephen, another monument honors the Freedom Fighters of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.
There, a wide path begins its half-mile semicircle through woods and lawns of Meditation Park, past the Way of the Cross, the Cathedral in the Pines, and some wayside shrines.
These “Iron Curtain Stations of the Cross,” unique in the United States, were erected when Hungary was fully under the yoke of communism.
Topped by redwood crosses, all bear two scenes carved in rose granite. One scene presents Christ's passion and crucifixion; the other portrays something similar from the Hungarian people's struggle — at the same time evoking the sufferings of all innocent people persecuted for their faith.
The Station of the Condemned, for example, pairs Jesus being sentenced and Cardinal Mindszenty being judged.
“The Weight of Communism on the People” (third station) compares Jesus' fall and the people bent under communist oppression. The sixth station depicts Veronica, and a woman holding and shielding her children.
The 12th is the “Station of Crime and Punishment.” Each station becomes a reminder of the Church's modern-day participation in Christ's passion and death.
Along the path's arc, midway through the stations, is the Cathedral in the Pines, which can accommodate well over 1,000 for outdoor Mass. A statue of Our Lady of Fatima stands above the granite altar.
The bishop of Fatima had four copies made of the original in his cathedral and sent them in each direction. This is the one he sent westward, coming here himself to bless and dedicate it.
Near this outdoor altar is the Shrine Monument of the Unborn, donated by the Knights of Columbus in 1996.
The monument's statue of a mother holding her child is intended to aid the spiritual healing of those devastated by abortions.
The woodsy far end of the shrine property adjoins Youngstown's Mill Creek Park, the third largest municipal park in the country.
In the shrine chapel itself, the focal point above the central tabernacle is the statue of Our Lady Comforter of the Afflicted. Mary, crowned, holds a crowned child Jesus.
They are surrounded by radiant glory. An Italian artist sculpted this replica of the Madonna of Csiksomlyo based on descriptions given by the exiled friars.
Within the Mercy Chapel is a large image of Divine Mercy — an important Friday devotion here — and the pilgrim statue of the Blessed Virgin of Fatima. When he visited, the bishop of Fatima also enshrined this traveling statue, which was donated by the Servites of Fatima.
Although the Shrine of Our Lady Comforter of the Afflicted now draws visitors of all nationalities to honor Mary here, there are still two organized Hungarian pilgrimages each year to the shrine the friars call “Mary's Little Portion of Ohio.”
Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.