Eden Hill is a part of paradise that graces western Massachusetts. Its panoramic views of the Berkshires hills are nothing short of live postcards sent from heaven. It's a most fitting place for the National Shrine of the Divine Mercy.
Long before being given its title, the shrine, on 360-plus acres in the town of Stockbridge, was a novitiate for the Marians of the Immaculate Conception, purchased by the order in 1943. At the time, the reviving congregation of priests and brothers — founded in Poland in 1673, but by the early 20th century consisting of only one member worldwide — had decided to spread the message of Divine Mercy as revealed by Jesus to a Polish nun, Sister Faustina Kowalska.
As printing and distribution of the message quickly spread nationally and internationally, the Marian Fathers looked to add a chapel. But what was to be a simple stucco structure on a small scale budget became instead a version of a grand, timeless European church with the classic beauty of a miniature cathedral. Amazingly, no architectural plan for the chapel was ever put on paper.
The design and detail evolved in the head of Antonio Guerrieri, a local master furniture maker and wood carver who always wanted to do something for God. When commissioned in 1950, he was 74. He would simply hand out his inspirations which had been sketched on the spot for the local artisans and volunteer workers and then oversee the task at hand. Much of the construction material originated from nearby. Marble and granite blocks, for example, came from an estate in the neighboring town of Lenox, and was originally quarried in Lee, Mass., a few miles to the north.
In the tradition of magnificent Middle Ages' churches, this chapel was built over a decade without use of any modern machinery. Everything was done by hand, including all the hand-carved woodwork. The ceiling alone took almost three years.
In art and artistry, the sanctuary inspiringly captures Eden Hill's focus on Divine Mercy and Mary. At the center of the wood reredos, the Divine Mercy image is enshrined in a radiant gold frame. On either side, statues of the Apostles, carved in Italy, stand ready to help bring the message of mercy.
Centered above them is a statue of the Immaculate Conception. Higher still, from a mural above the reredos, the Holy Trinity crowns her.
The central framed image of the Divine Mercy was painted in Mexico by Father Joseph Jarzebowski from the original holy card picture he brought from Poland. The priest arrived in the United States in 1940 after escaping Nazi pursuers and traveling a circuitous route through Siberia and Japan. He brought the messages of Divine Mercy with him as recorded by Sister Faustina, whom Jesus called the “Apostle and Secretary of Divine Mercy.”
Jesus revealed this image to Blessed Faustina in 1931 when he appeared, and directed, “Paint an image according to the pattern you see here, bearing the signature, “Jesus, I Trust in You (Jezu, Ufam Tobie).”
This image of the Divine Mercy also appears on the painted wood carving used for Blessed Faustina's beatification in 1993. In it, rays stream from his heart and through a monstrance to the world as Blessed Faustina points through the rays to Jesus. With it in the Blessed Faustina side altar, there is also a first class relic for veneration. Two stained glass windows depict the Sacred Heart and Our Lady of Wilno (Vilnius).
It was in 1935 in Vilnius, a town then in Poland, now in Lithuania, that the earliest Divine Mercy image was transferred from the nun's convent to Ostra Brama (the Dawn Gate) and first venerated publicly. It was most fitting because the shrine in the chapel there was to Our Lady of the Dawn Gate, also referred to as Mother of Mercy. In the opposite side altar, dedicated to St. Joseph, Mary is again pictured as Our Lady of Ostra Brama as well as Our Lady of Czestochowa.
Pilgrims can attend Mass daily at 2:00 p.m.; then at 3:00 p.m., the hour of great mercy, they can pray the Divine Mercy perpetual novena and chaplet. Benediction follows, as does the Sacrament of Reconciliation at the shrine where a former rector says that miracles occur.
Even the exquisite series of stained glass windows done with old-world artistry brings forth this message. Executed by internationally known Stockbridge artist Fred Leuchs, each of the 14 side windows presents a gospel scene illustrating the mercy of God.
More recently, local artist William Murray also hand-crafted stained glass depicting the corporal works of mercy for Our Lady of Mercy Candle Shrine and oratory located on one of Eden Hill's slopes. This newer oratory, with the Blessed Sacrament, continues the prominent themes of Mercy and Mary in two paintings. In the candle shrine, hundreds of vigil lights burn for intentions of petitioners in person or by mail. The Marian Helpers Center next door has Mass cards for all occasions, and other material.
Down the hill from the national shrine, the Immaculate Conception Candle Shrine has just been added to the outdoor Lourdes Grotto. The curved portico and benches there invite rest.
The views of God's natural beauty are to be found almost everywhere you look. Pilgrims strolling on the grounds can stop at St. Joseph's patio, with its pool, fountain, and honeysuckle arbor; the peaceful St. Francis grove; and the bronze statue of St. Peregrine. There are picnic benches about, and a well-stocked gift shop too. Always serene, the spacious grounds host the largest crowd on Divine Mercy Sunday. This April nearly 13, 000 pilgrims came for the feast.
A half-mile below the shrine, Stockbridge's main street still poses for tourists in a scene resident artist Norman Rockwell painted for a Saturday Evening Post Christmas illustration. The 225-year-old Red Lion Inn is opposite the road that rises to Eden Hill.
The area is alive with arts activities. A few minutes away are the Rockwell Museum and, close by, Chesterwood, home of the sculptor of Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial. There is Shakespeare, classic theater, and professional dance. In Lenox, Tanglewood is the summer home of the Boston Symphony. Picturesque Lee is nearby.
Inns, bed-and-breakfasts, and motels including some very pricey ones are abundant in the environs. Eateries are easy to find, as is Stockbridge itself on Routes 102 & 7, a few minutes off Interstate 90 (the Massachusetts Turnpike), exit 2, about 130 miles west of Boston, or 40 east of Albany, N.Y. Many tourists to the area don't seem to realize the spiritual refreshment and natural wonder just two minutes from the town center, or the chapel's old-world beauty brought about with no plan on paper — another of the shrine's miracles.
Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.