Earthly kings never give their subjects unlimited access. They are not granted audiences whenever they want. But at Marytown in Libertyville, Ill., subjects of the King of kings are at liberty to walk into this regal shrine at any time, any day, to visit their eucharistic Lord.
“Christus Regnat Venite Adoremus” (Christ Reigns Come Let Us Adore), reads the open invitation carved on the facade of Marytown's sizable chapel. It bids everyone to take part in the perpetual eucharistic adoration that has been ongoing since June 7, 1928.
The Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration of Clyde, Mo., were the shrine's custodians for the first 50 years. They built the chapel at the invitation of Cardinal George Mundelein, head of the Archdiocese of Chicago during the first International Eucharistic Congress to be held in the United States, in June 1928. The prelate accommodated 1.5 million people who attended the opening session and 850,000 who attended the closing held on the grounds of St. Mary of the Lake Seminary.
The cardinal decided the fervor of the congress should continue with a chapel of perpetual adoration. He turned to the Benedictines to establish one.
The sisters finished the chapel in 1932 on donated land that bordered the seminary grounds. They named it Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, a title that emphasized the bond between Mary and Jesus and that would take on further significance in 1978 with the arrival of Conventual Franciscans. The friars from Kenosha, Wis., found this to be the ideal location where they could combine two ministries: perpetuation of eucharistic adoration and promotion of the Marian vision of Father Maximilian Kolbe, their patron, who was canonized in 1982.
The friars purchased the chapel from the sisters (who returned to their motherhouse in Missouri), moved their American Marytown down from Kenosha, and continued with perpetual adoration for the spiritual renewal of the world.
“The move was spiritually and theologically apropos,” explained Conventual Franciscan Father John Grigus, head of the lay adoration program. “Our friars were eucharistic [back] in the 1940s; in Kenosha we had eucharistic processions through the streets.”
They immediately invited the laity to join in Marytown's perpetual adoration. At first, they came slowly. But several years ago, after Father Grigus rejuvenated the program, the number of lay adorers increased fourfold.
“Our purpose is to communicate to our adorers that everyone there represents the entire Church,” he said. “And it's also a means of evangelizing.” Regulars invite others to come.
Marytown is also the national center for the Militia of the Immaculata, founded by St. Maximilian in 1917 as a worldwide movement for evangelization. In 1997, a conference center and a retreat wing were also opened.
The Blessed Sacrament Chapel is an important stop for many visitors. Once inside, the people stand in awe at its marble interior modeled after the Basilica of St. Paul-Outside-the-Walls in Rome.
The words Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus are inscribed on the steps that lead to the altar of exposition, where Jesus is enthroned in a 5-foot-2-inch tall monstrance. It's made completely from gifts of precious jewelry. Medallions presenting symbols of the Eucharist encircle the host. A figure of Mary as Our Lady of Grace with her foot crushing the serpent forms the graceful stem.
“The monstrance speaks of our theology,” said Father Grigus. “It's a meditation piece itself.”
Below its supporting marble pedestal with angels carved in high relief, rests the tabernacle. Its main image shows Christ with four streams flowing from his pierced heart. They represent the Gospels. The four streams then divide into seven, the sacraments.
The gold-leafed baldachin, a canopylike mark of royalty, stands on eight columns of marble and appears like an immense crown high over the King's head.
With its inspiring liturgical art and overall sumptuous beauty, the entire chapel becomes a scripturally based palace par excellence. At the same time, it reminds the people in prayer that they're in the presence of the heavenly King.
A stunning mosaic spans the arch above the sanctuary. Below the arch, near the altar of exposition, stand life-sized statues of Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament and St. Joseph, carved from single blocks of marble.
The Benedictine sisters were thoughtful builders. Latin inscriptions placed just under the red and gold coffered ceiling form a litany of eucharistic titles. The colorful stained glass windows teach the doctrines of the Eucharist. In windows high above these, choirs of angels bear sacred vessels and vestments in procession toward the altar.
Between the sets of windows, there are 14 unparalleled mosaics which portray the joys and glories of the Blessed Mother's life. Her sorrows are the focus of the adjoining Sorrowful Mother Chapel. The chapel's magnificent altar is made from 10 different marbles. The altar's frontispiece depicts Mary's immaculate heart pierced by seven swords.
Nine-foot-tall paintings of Mary's seven sorrows, expertly reproduced by the nuns from originals in the Cathedral of Antwerp, Belgium, line the walls. Stained glass windows in blues and reds honor Mary as Daughter of the Father, Mother of the Son and Spouse of the Holy Spirit. They also present her as Co-redemptrix, Advocate and Mediatrix of All Graces — titles that St. Maximilian also propagated.
Because the shrine fosters devotion to Our Lady of Fatima, the chapel contains a statue of the Blessed Mother by Jose Thedim, sculptor of the International Pilgrim Virgin statue. It is one of three original statues commissioned at Fatima.
The Passion-Kolbe Chapel has a riveting altarpiece mosaic of the suffering Christ. As the shrine is also the diocesan shrine to St. Maximilian, another mosaic represents the saint rising from the fires of Auschwitz, where he was martyred.
In the main chapel, 11-foot mosaics of four scenes from his life join Franciscan saints such as Francis, Anthony, Clare of Assisi, Margaret of Cortona and Joseph of Cupertino.
The founder of the U.S. Marytown at the original Kenosha site, Conventual Franciscan Father Dominic Szymanski, visited this chapel many times. On one occasion in 1949, he told friars, “Someday this place will be ours.” History proved him correct.
—Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.