The rolling green hills and stone colonial farmhouses of southeastern Pennsylvania's Bucks County evoke a sense of peace and timelessness.
Driving through, it's easy to forget that you're just a few miles from the big-city commotion of Philadelphia (and Trenton, N.J.).
Follow the back roads north of Doylestown and, just when you think the setting couldn't be more tranquil, you come to the National Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa.
You can thank the shrine's patron, with her gentle, maternal spirit, for this being a place of such supernatural serenity.
Since the pontificate of Pope John Paul II began, Americans have become more familiar with the image of the “Black Madonna” of Czestochowa (pronounced Chen-sto-HO-va). This ancient icon, said to have been painted by St. Luke, has been the rallying point of Polish Catholics since the late Middle Ages.
In 1655, when Poland had all but fallen to Swedish invaders, a small band of resisters successfully defended the besieged monastery where the image was housed. They were led by the father prior of the monastery, and their victory inspired the entire nation to fight back with renewed vigor. After this, Our Lady of Czestochowa was venerated as “Queen of Poland.” In more recent years, the shrine at Czestochowa achieved international prominence when Pope John Paul visited in 1979 and 1983.
The Pauline monastic order of Czestochowa began its first American foundation in 1953, when the order purchased 40 acres of Pennsylvania farmland. An old barn became the first chapel; it's still there today. The style of this chapel, both inside and out, resembles the country churches found throughout Poland. It is unmistakably Slavic, adorned with both statues and icons, since in Poland eastern and western customs meet and blend.
As the 1966 millennium of Poland's conversion to Christianity drew near, the Pauline fathers approached the hierarchy and their lay supporters with the idea of a major shrine and Polish cultural center to honor the occasion.
Soon donations were pouring in, and an army of volunteers began working to make the dream of an American Czestochowa a reality. In October of 1966, Archbishop John Krol of Philadelphia—along with U.S. President Lyndon Johnson—dedicated the National Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa.
Doorway to Devotion
Rising 70 feet overhead, with a 200-foot tower, the sleek edifice is the largest in all of Pennsylvania. A sweeping staircase leads to the main door, on which relief sculptures depict scenes from the history of the holy image. The vestibule is worth a look, especially to anyone interested in Polish history. It showcases small memorials honoring, among other people and events, the airmen who left Poland and flew with England's Royal Air Force during World War II, the officers murdered en mass by the Soviets in the Katyn forest, the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, and the great concert pianist and Polish patriot Ignacy Paderewski, whose heart is enshrined here.
The center aisle of the immense church leads to a raised sanctuary with a marble altar. An exact replica of the Czestochowa icon is suspended above, framed by a stately and striking sculpture of the Blessed Trinity.
The two side altars—one dedicated to St. Joseph, the other to the Blessed Sacrament—are each backed by colorful mosaics. On either side of the church are enormous walls of stained glass; at 40 feet by 50, they're the largest such windows in the United States. The east window-wall depicts in 34 panels the history of the United States, with special attention to its religious and Catholic history. (My favorite was the signing of the Declaration of Independence, with Our Lady of Guadalupe hovering above.) The western window-wall depicts 36 highlights from the first 1,000 years of Christianity in Poland.
Leaving the church, one sees in the choir loft a magnificent pipe organ, and is again reminded of the sad yet glorious history of Catholic Poland: A prominent inscription dedicates the organ to the memory of Father Jerzy Popieluszko, the martyr of the Solidarity movement who was beaten to death in 1984.
Confession and Consolation
The 2,000-capacity church is not used during the week, but the same building also houses a separate chapel, dedicated to St. Anne—whose feast day is July 26—which can accommodate up to 200 pilgrims.
This smaller sanctuary is not lacking in attention to its own displays of beauty and splendor. Behind the altar, another replica of the miraculous “Black Madonna” image hangs on a green marble reredos decorated with golden angels and royal Polish eagles. Other features of the chapel include a newer statue titled “Mary of Nazareth,” in which the Blessed Mother appears to be running forth to welcome pilgrims, and a striking painting of St. Peter preaching in catacombs by artist Adam Styka.
Although founded largely with the aim of preserving the cultural and spiritual heritage of Polish Catholics, the National Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa has become much more. The busloads of pilgrims that come every Sunday form an increasingly multiethnic throng. Haitians, in particular, come in such numbers that many instructional signs have been added in French.
Many who come here find their mother—and, as the Pauline priests who hear confessions all day long will attest, a “door” through which they return home to a church family they had abandoned years before.
Father Marian Zalecki has been here since 1965. He is one of the 16 Pauline priests and brothers who serve the Doylestown pilgrims. He has witnessed many miracles of conversion at the shrine.
“The Blessed Mother is the good mistress of this house,” he told me. “The pilgrims come here, tired and weary with their various problems, and she welcomes them. She washes their feet and leads them to confession. She sets the Lord's table, and leads them to the Eucharist. She refreshes them so they can go forward in their earthly pilgrimage.
“Our Blessed Mother is, as Vatican II reminded us, ‘the great consolation of the pilgrim Church.’ Those who come here leave with that consolation.”
Daria Sockey writes from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.