The unassuming entrance to Our Lady of Fatima Shrine in Holliston, Mass., does-n't even hint at the surprises awaiting pilgrims on the peaceful grounds just beyond.

Among these, the most amazing is the world's largest rosary.

I didn't make this discovery immediately upon entering the property. First came a slow stroll along well-marked walkways that wend their way around the parklike shrine. These paths invite visitors to stop, pray and meditate at a number of small shrines and to walk the Way of the Cross.

As you walk, the shrine unveils itself to you a bit a time—the “bits” being made up of well-tended gardens, rolling lawns, and clusters of trees and shrubs. The site is not spectacular in the way great mountain vistas and ocean views can be, but rather understated, a sort of visual poetry. It's this quality of humble, simple beauty that makes the spiritual aspects of the site so palpable.

Even though the surrounding area has somewhat of a small-town atmosphere, the woodsy perimeter of the shrine's 23 acres wraps the whole place in an extra layer of seclusion and tranquility.

Wide, paved pathways begin past the parking lots and the picnic shelter, where visitors often gather for lunch or a snack. The shortest path leads to the newer Fatima chapel. Its A-line roof rises above an alternating combination of narrow stained-glass windows and pillar supports that, in sunlight, look like shiny rows of organ pipes.

Three long pathways eventually arrive at the gigantic rosary. One of them passes a small pond, then carries pilgrims toward the Fatima scene of the Angel of Peace appearing to the three shepherd children. The second wide way leads to the Scala Sancta.

The third path moves along the sylvan Way of the Cross in a series of continuous, gentle curves that coax you from station to station. Each station is a raised relief on a white Carrara marble plaque that's attached to a soaring, rough pillar of local pink granite. At twilight, this peaceful walk glows in soft illumination.

This path eventually arrives at the Hill of Fatima, recalling the 1917 apparitions of Mary, who stands on Madonna Hill, while the Portuguese children—Lucia, Blessed Francisco and Blessed Jacinta—kneel attentively in front of her. Like all the shine's life-sized statues, these are carved of white Carrara marble. This inspiring scene, the first done when the shrine was being built, is a perfect prelude to the magnificent rosary because it brings to mind that, at Fatima, one of Mary's main instructions to the children and to the world was to pray the rosary for peace.

Rosary Revelation

Peace is exactly what I was experiencing when I came to the monumental rosary. This starts by the Scala Santa—the Holy Stairs—which allow you to climb to a Calvary scene larger than life-sized. Mary stands before her crucified son; John and Mary Magdalene kneel. Once you climb the stairs and stand near the crucifixion scene, you see that you're standing at the beginning and end of the rosary, which unfurls before you on the other side of the hill to encircle more than an acre of lawn.

At 950 feet long and weighing in at 300 tons, this rock rosary doesn't seem to have an equal. For three years in the early 1960s, Xaverian Father Oddo Galeazzi tirelessly searched quarries and abandoned gravel pits in eastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island to find the right “beads.” Each “bead” is a boulder of granite that measures a few feet in length and width. Massive “Our Father” beads are about twice the size of the “Hail Marys.”

Heavy links from the chain of a ship's anchor join each bead to form the decades that meet at the 18-ton granite “medal.”

That's not all. Following the paved path that outlines this immense rosary, you'll find on every bead a copper plaque engraved with the Hail Mary in one of 53 different languages—one language for each bead—arranged in alphabetical order.

There are the easily recognizable ones like French, Italian, German, Polish and Spanish. But there are also the exotic tongues such as Aramaic, Old Arabic, Bengali, Inuit-Eskimo, Fijian, Samoan, Swahili and Tamil.

The incorporation of a wide variety of languages seems to stress the universality of Mary's request, and the Church's missionary spirit. The rosary is for all peoples. This complete rosary is laid out in the shape of a heart, too. It's a beautiful, subtle reminder that the this prayer is at the heart of the Blessed Mother's Fatima message—a prayer that's the way to her Son's heart, and a prayer to give heart to the world.

The walking rosary eliminates all distractions. As you pray along it, you can easily rest your hand on each bead, more than waist-high. Even if you can't say the Hail Mary in each particular language, you still pray with universal solidarity with that particular people. Incidentally, the large anchor chain that joins the beads to the crucifix is on lend-lease from the U.S. Navy, which gave it in memory of John F. Kennedy.

This world mission-sized rosary was blessed in 1964 by Bishop Jeremiah Minihan and has indirect connections to the earliest American missions. Father Galeazzi got the idea for it at the Shrine of the North American Martyrs in Auriesville, N.Y., where he saw a rosary of small stones recreating one that a resourceful young Indian girl named Theresa, niece of the chief of the Bear Nation, formed with brook pebbles after her rosary was taken from her.

Fatima Dispatch

Another reminder of joining people and times by prayer also comes at the huge slice of a 2,400-year-old Sequoia tree that predates Christianity and ties together three millenniums. A few events, such as the Crucifixion, are marked on the tree's rings.

Under Calvary Hill, there's a quiet grotto with a reproduction of the Pieta. Nearby, the outdoor altar, with its generous stone and grass plaza, again heart-shaped, is the scene of many outdoor Masses. They're always a part of the devotions which include the Way of the Cross and an evening candlelight procession on every 13th of the month from May through October. They draw hundreds of participants to commemorate the apparitions of Our Lady of Fatima.

In 1950, Cardinal Richard Cushing of Boston came to solemnly bless the shrine which had been founded by Father J. Henry Frassineti, the first Xaverian Missionary in the United States.

He had originally gotten the land for a seminary to train missioners. In 1949, he built the shrine as a sign of devotion to Mary and to make her Fatima messages known. While a missionary in China from his native Italy, he had already built a chapel to Our Lady of Fatima there in 1932—thought to be the first in the world to her under this title.

During the 1950s, group pilgrimages here were immensely popular. An annual children's day pilgrimage, for example, held each September, regularly drew close to 12,000 participants.

Today, the shrine is seldom so densely populated by visitors, but, true to the universal message of Fatima, it regularly hosts pilgrims representing a wide array of nationalities—Italians, Irish, Polish, Vietnamese, Filipino and Portuguese being among the best-represented. Scores of people also travel here every December for the displays of all-white Christmas lights that illuminate the shrine in the spirit of a transcendant journey, explains Xaverian Father Eugene Montesi, the current director. The shrine even draws many high-school groups, which come to study and identify the great variety of trees.

At the head of the grounds, Our Lady of Fatima Chapel and adjoining hall were opened in 1975 for Masses that would keep visitors undaunted by rain or snow. There are beautiful, contemporary stained-glass windows that tell the story of Mary's life and also recount Xaverian missions.

I couldn't help but realize that, indoors or out, all year round, this shrine has a welcome reign of peace and the unmistakable presence of the message of Fatima.

Joseph Pronechen writes from

Trumbull, Connecticut.

------- EXCERPT: Our Lady of Fatima Shrine, Holliston, Mass.