When a statue of the Virgin Mary was being lifted into place at the National Shrine of Our Lady of Lebanon on July 20, 1965, the crowd present for the ceremony experienced a special moment of grace.
As the enormous stone image came to rest atop a 50-foot tower, a cloud above turned “brilliant shades of the colors of the rainbow,” as they described the extraordinary sight. This many took as an unmistakable sign of the Blessed Mother's approval and her good pleasure with their building this shrine, a one-third-scale replica of the original in Harissa, Lebanon.
Before I turned onto the long drive that leads through the shrine grounds, I lingered on the quiet country road in North Jackson, Ohio, to absorb this idyllic scene.
From this distance, the honor given to Mary is already evident. As I gazed across the long carpet of lawn unrolling toward the shrine, my eyes locked on the prominent, graceful statue of Mary atop the lofty tower. She greets us with open arms like a mother welcoming her children. She beckons us to hurry to the stairs spiraling around the tower up to her.
From the very start, our Blessed Mother made clear her approval to build this shrine, Msgr. William Bonczewski, the shrine's director for 23 years, told me. The hardships and obstacles that needed to be overcome to erect this place, which radiates such tranquility and simple beauty, only increased the people's reliance on Mary for help.
And what obstacles. The 80-acre farmland nearly wasn't sold to the founders because the owner insisted she'd “never sell to a Catholic.” But three days after four priests began a novena for the situation to change, the farmwoman suddenly agreed to an immediate sale. She told them their ‘Lady’ kept disturbing her sleep.
Our Lady's Choice
When Msgr. Peter Eid from Youngstown bought the land in 1961, his brother, Msgr. Maroun Eid, along with Father Maron Abi-Nadir, joined the project. The stamp of approval came from both the local bishop and Pope John XXIII. But as three Maronite parishes of the Eastern Catholic Rite started working together to develop the shrine, new struggles cropped up. For a start, no water was available to the property for four years. Other hardships followed, but nothing could stop the shrine's progress.
What all this reveals, says Msgr. Bonczewski, is that “it was as much a choice of Our Lady as of the people wanting to do the project.”
As another sign of Mary's approval, this shrine was dedicated and blessed by Auxiliary Bishop James Malone on Aug. 15, 1965, on the Assumption, the major pilgrimage feast celebrated every year at the shrine. (The original shrine in Lebanon, dedicated in 1908, was specifically built for the Golden Jubilee of the proclamation of the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception.) On Dec. 8, 1987, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, the Ohio shrine's new Christ, Prince of Peace Chapel was dedicated.
This national shrine may be a one-third replica of the Lebanon original, but it was built from strictly American resources. The 50-foot-high, 3,700-ton tower is a monument of smooth stones from the rivers of Tennessee. The 12-foot-high statue of Our Lady of Lebanon standing atop it is sculpted from over seven tons of solid pink granite from North Carolina.
Deeply devoted to Mary, the Maronites often address the Blessed Mother by the title “Cedar of Lebanon” to acclaim her strength and fidelity. Here, we're visibly reminded that the title comes from the Bible, which hails her as bride and queen. “Come from Lebanon, my bride, Come from Lebanon” (Song of Songs 4:8) proclaims the inscription on the granite pedestal under the statue of Mary.
A reproduction of this statue and tower becomes a splendid surprise as it forms the tabernacle in the shrine's first chapel. I couldn't help but think of it as beautifully representing Mary as the new Ark of the Covenant bringing us to Jesus, and Jesus to us.
The chapel, which is nearly circular because it's enfolded within the base of the tower, holds 40 comfortably for daily Mass and eucharistic adoration. Here, too, we can meditate on the icons of Our Lady of Lebanon, an image of the Divine Mercy, a statue of St. Sharbel and an icon of St. Maron, the fourth-century founder of the Maronites.
The Maronite Rite for the liturgy traces to the church in Antioch, where Christians were first called “Christians,” and to the SyriacAramaic language and culture. In part, the liturgy extends back to the tradition of St. James. But what stands us in awe at this liturgy is that this ancient rite is the only one in which the words of consecration are recited in the Aramaic language that Jesus used at the Last Supper.
We Roman Rite Catholics feel right at home and can easily participate because much of the liturgy is now in English. But many people don't know that the shrine is a Catholic one (even though Lebanon itself is quite densely Catholic).
Despite the mistaken notion, people do come from far and wide, says Msgr. Bonczewski. Not a few have been non-Catholics who have ended up converting after their visit, he adds.
This shrine acts as a Little Harissa because Maronite Catholics come for weddings and funerals in the same way they do to the original shrine in Lebanon. In the same way, the faithful (of Roman and Byzantine Rites, too) flock to this Ohio site annually in August for a major three-day pilgrimage to celebrate the feast of the Assumption.
“I've always thought of this shrine as a Nazareth,” Msgr. Bonczewski told me. “You can feel a presence here.”
He's right. As at Nazareth, St. Joseph appears as an important part of the picture. He's honored at his outdoor shrine in the St. Joseph Prayer Garden. The courtyard then leads to the Way of the Cross, a Holy Family shrine inspiring more meditation, as well as wayside shrines that include a Pietà, and images of St. Rita and Padre Pio.
The main shrine expands significantly to either side of the tower. To one side, Christ, Prince of Peace Chapel forms a generous-sized cruciform church holding 450. It has an open, light, peaceful feeling. The wood door into the sacristy was hand-carved by a visiting Romanian Orthodox priest with images that include a Lebanon cedar tree and the country's mountains.
Beautiful wood-carved shrines of Our Lady of Guadalupe and Our Lady of Czestochowa grace the chapel. Other shrines also give us constant spiritual food for prayer as they honor the Divine Mercy (blessed and enthroned by Father Seraphim Michalenko from the National Shrine of Divine Mercy in Massachusetts), the Infant of Prague, St. Joseph, St. Thérèse and St. Jude.
This warm and inviting chapel connects to Cedars Hall, which, with its banquet-sized dining facilities, allows the shrine to host sizable pilgrimages and conferences. There's the smaller Blue Room dining room, too.
I found the spacious, bright gift shop outdoing many stores, well stocked as it is with its large variety of religious items, traditional Catholic basics and literary classics.
One thing you're sure to do as I did. Arriving and leaving (at the very least), climb the 64 steps, representing the prayers of the rosary, to the top of the tower. Stand under Our Lady of Lebanon's outstretched, protective arms and, from this lofty height, survey and drink in the serene shrine unfolding before you — a foreshadow of heaven.
Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.