What can I do?” James Williamson asked himself while on pilgrimage over 35 years ago in Pontevedra, Spain.
He stood near the spot where Jesus had appeared in 1925 to Sister Lucia, the Fatima visionary, and asked the young postulant what was being done to promote devotion to his Mother.
Williamson's desire quickly turned to an inspired solution for how he could help make the Blessed Virgin better known and loved: expose people to Our Lady's myriad titles and images, and explain their origins and spiritual significance.
“The thought came to me immediately, right in the convent garden: ‘I can collect her statues and share them with others to spread devotion to Mary,’” says Williamson, still surprised by the notion.
The simple impulse that was received on that day in Pontevedra has grown to become the Marian Museum, a collection of some 500 statues of Mary from around the world. The museum's temporary location is Williamson's own Brooklyn, N.Y., brownstone house, where he offers tours to about 800 visitors each year.
Twice, Brooklyn Bishop Thomas Daily has blessed the little museum, and the late Bishop Constantine Luna said Mass there in his role as international president of the Blue Army, the Marian organization inspired by the Fatima apparitions. And New York's Public Broadcasting Service station featured the museum in an arts program earlier this year.
Despite its growing reputation, the building's small size prevents growth, and its urban location with limited parking is inconvenient for visitors.
That will all change dramatically within the next two years.
With the help of private funds, the museum will move to bigger quarters in a location that will bring Williamson and his work full circle.
Just as the original inspiration for the museum took place in a locale special for Sister Lucia, the Marian Museum will see its full flowering in the environs of Fatima itself. Williamson said he has received reports that Sister Lucia's Carmelite community is “thrilled” by the move.
As for the museum's present content, there is Our Lady of Fatima, Our Lady of Lourdes and all of the other well-known images of Mary. There is also Our Lady of Akita, Japan, Our Lady of the Rockies in Montana, and Our Lady of Walsingham from England.
Besides her familiar and official titles such as Our Lady of Hope, of Sorrows, of Grace, and of the Rosary, Mary also has many less-known but regionally or nationally popular titles such as Our Lady of Tears (Ecuador) and Our Lady of Conquest (New Mexico).
Some images present her in elaborate robes as heaven's queen. Others depict her in simple dress and apron, reflecting her role as wife and mother in Nazareth.
After years of collecting material, Williamson, now in his 70s, began to realize his goal in June 1987. “After my wife died,” he explains, “the museum took my whole house over” — officially, it might be noted. The state of New York recognizes it as a museum, and the American Association of Museums in Washington counts it a member.
A carpenter by trade, Williamson fashioned the display cases for the public viewing. He points out that the statues have not been collected for their artistic merit. “Here I want to tell about Our Lady,” he emphasizes. “My sole purpose is to bring people to Mary, and she brings them to Jesus.”
Williamson also acts as enthusiastic Marian tour guide, relating the history and devotion associated with the images. Head of Brooklyn's Blue Army chapter for the last two decades, Williamson relies on his encyclopedic knowledge of the Blessed Mother to talk about her messages and the favors linked to her intercession.
He often clarifies important points of Marian history, doctrine, and piety. At the statues of Our Lady of Fatima and Our Lady of Pompeii, he reminds visitors that these are popular titles while the official title for both is Our Lady of the Rosary, connecting Mary to the important practice of prayer and meditation. Cuba's Our Lady of Cobre and Our Lady of Luxembourg are both officially known as Our Lady of Charity, associating her more directly with the evangelical imperative to “love one another.”
Place names play a big role in the 3,600 titles of Mary catalogued by Williamson, from the more recognizable Our Lady of Guadalupe to the nearly obscure Our Lady of Kalotazeg, of Balsam, and of Fetal. These last two are Portuguese. “There are more than 600 titles for Mary just in Portugal,” he says.
Visitors learn Fetal commemorates a 12th-century apparition just five minutes from Fatima. As Our Lady of Balsam, where Moors had turned a convent into a fortress, Mary appeared among soldiers trying to recapture the building. They succeeded after the Virgin helped to tend to their wounds. Today, it is a place of pilgrimage for engaged couples.
As for Our Lady of Kalotazeg, she's dressed in native Hungarian costume. When, centuries ago, invading barbarians were destroying churches and statues, people saved their Madonnas by dressing Mary as a doll to fool the invaders.
Closer to home, Mary is even honored in the museum's Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn as Our Lady of the Narrows. As depicted in her statue at Xaverian High School, Mary looks out on the Narrows, where ships sail between Brooklyn and Staten Island into New York Bay. She holds a ship in her right hand. The more familiar Our Lady of Good Voyage blesses with her right hand and cradles a ship in her left.
The Narrows image contained in the museum is unusual—the 2-foot-high mold of the Xaverian original. “They said the mold would last three months,” Williamson says with a twinkle. “Now it's more than 30 years old.”
Interesting explanations and unusual titles abound for the statues. Our Lady of the Tears commemorates an Ecuadorean miracle witnessed by many children. Our Lady of the “O” originated in 14th century Spain from a popular Mass with an antiphon beginning, “O Mary.”
Our Lady of the Household radiates domestic tranquillity, showing Mary feeding birds while the Child Jesus holds her apron and looks fondly up to her.
A number of the statues are hand made and clothed, such as the unusual wayside Our Lady of the Straw Chapel: Mary wears an ornate, embroidered dress and lace headpiece, while the Child Jesus appears in elaborate kingly clothing.
One recent addition includes the larger-than-life-sized Our Lady of the Blessed Eucharist, with a white rose on Mary's exposed heart.
Our Lady of the Three Hail Marys is an all-encompassing image. Mary stands on a cloud; around her, three cherubs happily display Ave Maria banners; crowning her from above are God the Father with Jesus holding his cross and the Holy Spirit in a burst of radiance.
The stories behind the images weave tightly together to form an intricate pattern of Mary's admirable qualities and maternal concern for her children. Visitors swiftly realize that whether the many statues displayed here are from Bolivia, Holland, Lebanon, the Philippines; whether plaster, metal, wood, terra cotta, or marble, it is the same Mary, our Blessed Mother.
Offered free on a reservation-only basis, the tours of the museum will continue at least through this year.