The Central Association of the Miraculous Medal in the Germantown section of Philadelphia— “Mary's Central Shrine,” as it's known — opened on Sept. 27, 1927.
Pilgrims have been arriving here, at the site of St. Vincent's Seminary (built in the 1870s) ever since.
The faithful who come here to pray the Perpetual Miraculous Medal Novena jam the pews every Monday, when no fewer than 1,600 people make their way through the front doors.
Masses and various religious services run periodically throughout the day and evening. City residents and guests greet the Vincentian priests and brothers who operate the site, taking advantage of chance meetings on staircases, hallways and aisles in a place known for its hospitality. It's also known for its creative, reverent images in marble, glass, metal and other artistic mediums.
The stone building rises several stories into the sky; you can see it from a few city blocks away. When a local tells you “you can't miss it,” he isn't exaggerating.
Step inside the front foyer, and you're greeted by the figures of St. Vincent de Paul, St. Louise De Marillac, an apparition from the Rue de Bac of the Blessed Virgin and St. Catherine Laboure, as well as St. Alphonse Ratisbonne, a stouthearted atheist and, later, a priest and a fierce promoter of the Miraculous Medal.
As you walk from there into the chapel, your glance is drawn upwards, toward the inlaid mosaic ceiling. There you're mesmerized by a tryptich of scenes from the Annunciation, Nativity and Assumption. Their splendor, size and radiant colors complement a beautiful painting of Mary, Mother of the Church, which spans a substantial portion of the shrine's main dome in glorious red and gold tones.
Giant columns of green marble from the Swiss Alps line the walls. “The Holy Agony Shrine” at the front left reveals a wall-size mural of the crucified Christ over a white-stone tabernacle and altar; nearby, two life-size figures of Our Lady seated on a blue velvet chair with St. Catherine kneeling beside her always attracts a large throng. A replica of the original chair remains on display in the Parisian Rue de Bac Chapel with the saint's incorrupt body in a glass sarcophagus under the altar.
On the opposite side of the church, above a full-scale statue of St. Catherine Laboure, is a massive mural of the martyrdom of St. John Gabriel Perboyle, a Vincentian missionary-martyr of China. Underneath this, petitioners crouch at St. Catherine's feet to implore her inter-cession. At the statue's left, the stunning altar to the Blessed Virgin of the Miraculous Medal draws the pilgrim's attention back to the ceiling, from where Mary watches over the sanctuary, assisted by St. Vincent de Paul on one side and St. Louise de Marillac on the other.
The altar of Pavanazzo marble displays a statue of Mary with her arms open to a fallen world; the front and reverse sections of the Miraculous Medal are inset in the altar sidings. Marble abounds on walls, flooring and columns, accented by two standing gold chandeliers. A decorative and story-like altar, the bottom shows bas reliefs of the first Paris apparitions, a center section which reads “Virgo Potens” and the Virgin of the Globe. The railing is crowded with scraps of paper crammed into every niche, on the floor, or anywhere that a pilgrim can leave a written petition for Our Lady to consider. (I couldn't resist adding my own petitions to the plethora of paper slips in one corner.)
The shrine's lower level possesses its own points of interest, particularly its “crypt,” a small mausoleum room. The shrine's director, Vincentian Father William O'Brien, guided me toward the end of a long corridor to view the burial spots of many Vincentian priests and brothers. The vaults can be seen through the glass entrance.
Apparently, the “crypt” is very well-frequented amongst Philadelphians; a man stopped me after my “tour” to be certain I had visited this hallowed ground. Near the gift shop, a metal wall lists the names of Philadelphians and others associated with the shrine who died during World War II. This is complemented by a succession of gold-framed, multihued wall tableaus illustrating St. Catherine's visions.
Spanning the Globe
While the medal was struck and disseminated during St. Catherine's lifetime, no one knew the sister who saw the Virgin. Only at the end of her life was St. Catherine Laboure revealed as the privileged soul given this special mission, whereas the saint always preferred to remain behind the scenes in silence, solitude and fidelity to her duties as gardener and portress.
Below the main chapel, a prominent niche highlights a statue of Mary, who raises a golden globe to heaven. Many flock to this railing in a contemplative mode. At this alcove, the faithful congregate and more petitions accumulate. Father O'Brien smiled as he remarked that these scribbled appeals will turn up just about anywhere a pilgrim can tuck one.
During the vision of “the globe” on November 27, 1830, Our Lady remarked to St. Catherine: “This globe represents the entire world, including France, and every person.” With this message, Mary revealed that she carries humanity in her motherly arms, with the golden ball symbolic of the active presence of God in the hearts and lives of everyone.
Many are familiar with the “little yellow novena booklet” of the Miraculous Medal that has its origin at Mary's Central Shrine. I've prayed with it myself at a local Vicentian church at the Monday Night Miraculous Medal Novena. Now it has spread to France, Holland, Belgium, Italy, Ireland and South America.
In St. Catherine's words, “Now it must be propagated,” we find prime evidence that Mary's intercession radiates from this Philadelphia shrine to all parts of the world where the novena is perpetually recited— and the Miraculous Medal is worn around the neck, as Our Lady requested.
Regina Marshall lives in Hamden, Connecticut.