Father Sylvester Livolsi devoted much of his priesthood to building a sanctuary to Mary. Now, his unwavering dream has come to fruition.
On May 1 of last year, the feast of St. Joseph the Worker, more than 200 people packed the chapel of the Sanctuary of Mary, Our Lady of the Holy Spirit in Branchville, N.J. Bishop Arthur Serratelli of Paterson, N.J., celebrated a memorial Mass for Father Livolsi and consecrated the sanctuary. The guardianship of the sanctuary was transferred to the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity.
Father Livolsi died in February 2008 on his 85th birthday. He had arranged with two trustees of the sanctuary, Msgr. Paul Hayes, his seminary classmate and lifelong friend, and Margaret Nolo, longtime treasurer of the sanctuary, to give it to the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity. “It’s a free gift to them,” said Msgr. Hayes. “The shrine has got to grow, and SOLT is going to be responsible for its growth.”
Msgr. Hayessaid Father Livolsi had the idea for the sanctuary in his seminary days. Every year since his ordination in 1948, Father Livolsi would ask the archbishop of Newark if he could devote his ministry to building a shrine to Mary. And every year he was told he was needed in the parishes. But his dream never wavered.
One sunny Sunday Father Livolsi took his mother out for a drive to northeastern New Jersey along winding Route 519, a quiet country road new to him. In Branchville, he happened on a scenic spot with a “For Sale” sign. The next day he called the owner to buy five acres. He had no money but described his inspiration for a Marian shrine.
The non-Catholic owner, Nils Ericson, wouldn’t subdivide. But a month later he and his wife had second thoughts and decided to sell him nine acres. What could be better on their land than a shrine, they thought?
In 1972, Bishop Lawrence Casey of Paterson gave his permission and blessing. Father Livolsi devoted the remaining 37 years of his priesthood to building the sanctuary, which today stands on 23 acres nestled amid picturesque rural scenes.
The athletic priest chopped trees himself and mixed cement. An early photo shows him smiling with the first large cross he erected using tree limbs. Volunteers soon joined in.
Everyone Pitched In
By 1974 the chapel took shape. Today, the interior is a warm combination of rustic pine ceiling and a heavenly catechism of traditional liturgical art. Rows of old-fashioned stained-glass windows surround visitors with saints like Joseph, Therese and Anne, focus on Mary’s titles like Our Lady of Lourdes, or prompt the contemplation of the Visitation, Nativity or Crucifixion. Stretching along the wall above are the invocations of Mary from the Divine Praises recited after Benediction.
Between windows, carved wooden Stations of the Cross open like triptychs with meditations and prayers on both sides. Beautiful statues honor Mary and Joseph, especially ones flanking the tabernacle.
Somehow, Father Livolsi did everything without fund-raising. “He wouldn’t take a salary and refused his pension,” Nolo explained. “He wouldn’t accept Mass stipends. He didn’t like to talk about money at all.”
Msgr. Hayes said that his former classmate had unwavering trust that St. Joseph would take care of everything. On their own, people donated or volunteered their time. Carpenters, plumbers and workmen simply pitched in. Ericson did the excavating for free. Pews were donated from one church, the Stations of the Cross from another.
The sanctuary expanded to include St. Joseph Pilgrim Hall; God the Father Chapel, where people can read and meditate (built in memory of Ericson), and a little building dedicated to St. Michael.
“It’s the personal stuff that’s inspiring,” said Msgr. Hayes, noting that his friend left journals, poems and letters in his own meticulous, masculine handwriting. Devotion to St. Joseph the Worker shines through. Father Livolsi would explain how “you can pray while you’re working.” He believed St. Joseph showed him the way.
Centered Around the Eucharist
Father Thomas Nicastro of Our Lady of the Assumption in Bayonne, N.J., attributes his vocation to Father Livolsi.
“He had a beautiful practice, and I believe my vocation to the priesthood had to do with it,” he said. “After he baptized a baby, he would hold the baby up and dedicate the baby to the Blessed Mother. I believe I got my vocation that day when he dedicated me to the Blessed Mother.”
Years later, as a high school student, Father Nicastro hosted pilgrimages to the sanctuary from his parish of St. Francis Xavier in Newark (where Father Livolsi served as a young priest).
“Father Livolsi had his own special vision and provided a place of prayer and devotion for many people and began something very good,” Bishop Serratelli said. “The presence of SOLT is going to build on his work and offer to people many ways to deepen authentic Catholic spirituality.”
Visitors will find a shrine schedule centered around the Eucharist. There is an hour of adoration in the morning with the Rosary and another adoration hour in the afternoon. “We’re Eucharistic-centered and want to eventually expand that,” said the sanctuary’s director, Father James Mulligan of the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity.
Father Gerard Sheehan explained how the society would like the lay faithful to join in the prayer life and daily adoration at the shrine and come in groups for days of recollection. He also believes that Our Lady has provided the sanctuary as a place for priests to be renewed in their relationship with Christ through prayer and contemplation.
“It’s a tremendous gift, and we want to use it for her purposes,” he said. “It has the potential of becoming a great sanctuary for many different people.”
Staff writer Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.
Sanctuary of Mary, Our Lady of the Holy Spirit
252 Wantage Ave. (Rt. 519)
Branchville, NJ 07826
Getting There: From I-84 West in New York state, take exit 2. At the end of the ramp, take a left (south) on County Road 35/Mountain Road. Crossing the New Jersey state line, this becomes County Road 519/Greenville Road. At triangle, bear left onto County Road 443/Rt. 23. Bear right onto County Road 519/Colesville Lusscroft Road. Bear right at intersection with Brink Road, continuing along 519. This becomes Wantage Avenue. Continue following this, and bear left on Wantage when it splits with Kymer Road. The sanctuary is at 252 Wantage.
Planning Your Visit: There is daily Mass but no Sunday Mass. (The shrine isn’t a parish.) Confessions anytime.