Because the town of Nazareth is nearby and the small city of Bethlehem is next-door, Allentown, Pa., seems a natural location for the National Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mother of the Americas.
It will also be a natural place to visit Dec. 12, feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
In 1974, the Allentown diocese was chosen over 40 other dioceses that had applied to host this national shrine. At the time, the choice must have seemed befuddling to some. In retrospect, it makes perfect sense.
The shrine is located in the Church of the Immaculate Conception. This beautiful neo-Gothic church stands in an older, established section of the city that's between the Jordan and Leigh Rivers. The latter's name derives from an American Indian dialect; taken together, the two suggest the span of centuries and cultures for which this area has been a backdrop.
Allentown sits at a crossroads. It's a popular stop for lots of folks on their way to Philadelphia, New York and points in all directions. Then, too, Pennsylvania is nicknamed the Keystone State, a fact that made me reflect that Our Lady of Guadalupe can be the keystone to end abortion because Pope John Paul II named her Queen of the Americas and consecrated the entire continent to her.
After all, Mary is pictured as expecting a child in her miraculous image on a 470-year-old tilma that should have disintegrated after 30 years. Father Harold Dagle, pastor of the church and director of the shrine, emphasized that the black ribbon tied around her waist and into a bow was customary for pregnant Aztec women.
When Mary appeared to Blessed Juan Diego in 1531, it marked her first formal apparition in an America without the formal boundaries we now know. Mary called to “Juanito, Dear Juan Diego, son Juan,” and told him that she was “the merciful mother of all of you who live united in this land, of all mankind …”
Centuries earlier, her words reflected the situation in Allentown when this Church of the Immaculate Conception was founded in 1857, long before the national shrine was placed within it. Because at the time this was the city's only Catholic church, all the European immigrants of different nationalities united here to worship. These peoples learned to live together in harmony in the “Catholic part of town” back then.
‘It is the Immaculate’
St. John Neumann founded this church when he was bishop of Philadelphia. He had been in Rome on Dec. 8, 1854, for the proclamation of the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception. As I had once learned at his Philadelphia shrine, it's most likely that Bishop Neumann held the book for Pius IX as the Pope announced the Marian dogma.
And, significantly, the Immaculate Conception ties in with Guadalupe. Mary first appeared to Juan Diego on Dec. 9 — the old calendar date for the feast of the Immaculate Conception before it was changed to Dec. 8. Also, when Juan Diego unfolded his tilma to show the roses he picked out-of-season to Mexican Bishop Zumarraga, the prelate fell to his knees. Seeing the miraculous image of Our Lady, he exclaimed, “It is the Immaculate.”
Here in Allentown, Mary's image as Our Lady of Guadalupe exerts a strong spiritual pull on us from its place above the left side altar. It's visible from every pew in the church; the present Gothic edifice from 1900 was designed so that no pillar obstructed anyone's view of the entire width of the sanctuary area.
This image of Our Lady of Guadalupe is considered by many to be the finest reproduction outside of the original tilma in the basilica in Mexico City.
The full-sized image is actually a photograph taken under rare circumstances by a professional American photographer. According to Samuel McGovern, the national lay director of this shrine since its beginning, the man was unexpectedly offered a private photo opportunity when such picture-taking was rarely permitted. Guards stood by as the case protecting the tilma was opened briefly for him. Kodak produced only three images for him. Only this one appeared to be exact.
Besides this reverential image above the shrine altar, from any pew we can contemplate highlights of Mary's life as they enfold us in the tall stained-glass windows. Their exquisite artistry by the renowned Meyer studio in Munich, Germany, beautifully details Mary in various stages of her earthly and heavenly life.
Nearest the Guadalupe image is a stained-glass representation of Our Lady as the Immaculate Conception. Other scenes led me to reflect on her life with her parents, her marriage to Joseph, the Annunciation, the Nativity, along with her role in Jesus' presentation in the temple, the flight into Egypt, finding young Jesus in the temple, family life in Nazareth, the death of St. Joseph, the marriage feast at Cana, Pentecost and Mary's coronation.
There is also a stained-glass window depicting the Sacred Heart appearing to St. Margaret Mary Alocoque, who was considered a Celt with Gaelic roots by Irish immigrants instrumental in building this church.
Several early parishioners have left their mark in other ways. McGovern, who grew up in this parish, remembers that every time his grandmother, Alice Donahue, took him to Mass as a child, she'd bless herself, look up to the ceiling, and say, “God have mercy on Kathy Devers' soul.” When he finally asked why she did that, his grandmother explained that Devers' face was depicted above — not once, but a dozen times.
Over and over the woman was the model for the angels connected with three enormous, mural-like canvas paintings that line the flat central portion of the vaulted ceiling.
Many early parishioners whose names may now be forgotten remain inside the church because they too modeled their faces for these splendiferous scenes — the Annunciation, the Assumption, and Mary's coronation in Heaven. Michael O‘Donnell, a young local artist who happened to be a cousin of McGovern's, painted these holy views between 1923–25.
All these heavenly images surround visitors and also busloads of pilgrims who attend the national shrine's biggest annual celebration to honor Our Lady of Guadalupe, held on the Sunday before the official Dec. 12 feast. This year's Dec. 9 celebration is to include the blessing of flowers for the sick and a solemn procession of the flowers filling a tilma carried by seminarians, and veneration of a glove of Padre Pio.
Of course, Our Lady of Guadalupe is patroness of the pro-life movement in a special way. After she appeared, the Aztec practice of human sacrifice soon completely ended, and more than 8 million Indians were converted within seven years. People can pray here for the end of abortion in our country and the accompanying conversions.
What Mary did once through her miraculous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, she can do again in our time.
Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.