The story of Our Lady of Connecticut, Virgin Mother of the Holy Vine, begins in the state and then spreads across all state lines.
Several people turned to Our Lady of Connecticut, Virgin Mother of the Holy Vine, for help in getting Len Suzio elected as a State Senator. It was the beginning of a road that starts, stops, and comes to a new start again.
“It was Sept. 8, 2010, Our Lady’s birthday, that we went up to St. Martha’s,” Nancy Ball told me. The parish in Enfield was where the icon of Our Lady of Connecticut, Mother of the Holy Vine, was enshrined. She and her husband John knew the priest who had the icon done back in 1994, Father Stanley Smolenski, now the director of a shrine in South Carolina. When Nancy told him the reason she wished to reproduce the icon, he suggested they make a pilgrimage to pray before Our Lady of Connecticut.
Nancy and John did. Suzio and his wife Kathryn joined them as did another couple.
“The election came and Len lost to the opponent who was in the senate for a long time,” Nancy says. But all was not really over.
“Much to my surprise,” Suzio recalls, “about two months after the election my opponent pleaded guilty to counts of larceny and he had to resign. He could not be sworn into office. There was a special election, and I did win it.”
Suzio became the only Republican to win that particular seat in 47 years. The seat encompass four cities known as District 13. Make of that what you will.
When he got to the capitol in Hartford, in his new office Suzio placed a copy of the icon of Our Lady of Connecticut.
Downs and Ups
Then came the 2012 and 2014 elections. Suzio lost both, but closely, by little over 200 votes. There was a priority to defeat him. Suzio has been strongly pro-life for a long time. He was president of the Pro-Life Council of Connecticut from 1981-83 and was very active debating on college campuses, TV, and radio for the pro-life cause. And for more than 30 years he’s also been vice president of the board of directors for High Hopes, a home for children with special needs.
So what happened in the 2016 election?
“This year we went to a Eucharistic Chapel and prayed on Election Day,” says Nancy Ball. “Because Len was pro-life he was very heavily targeted — so it’s really wonderful that he won.”
Win he did by a very wide measure that put Suzio back in the Senate.
Prayer Has Answers
Suzio and his wife Kathryn are devout Catholics. Naturally, they have an image of Our Lady of Connecticut in their home. He is a lector and a member of the Knights of Columbus. He and Kathryn who is a convert have five children and three grandchildren.
“We’re thankful to the Good Lord,” he says. “We always remember Our Lady in our prayers every night.” He adds that he grew up in a Catholic family “where we did pray the Rosary every day.”
Along the way Suzio has learned and profited from something that becomes a model for everyone. “I’ve learned that you have to trust in God all the time,” he says. “I remember it was disheartening to lose. But you just have to continue to do what’s right and do what God wants you to do.”
He quotes from St. Paul, 2 Corinthians 12:9 — “…power is made perfect in weakness. I think of that often.”
It should be important to those in power, like politicians. Suzio explains that “when you come into office people often treat you with extra deference. Sometimes you begin thinking you deserve it. That’s where people lose their humility.
“But losing makes you humble, and in the long run makes you a stronger and better person. I think I understand better what St. Paul meant,” he says. “Losing can sometimes be a blessing.”
That learning works in another way too that guides not only him but would be the best guide for any person or politician. Suzio describes it this way:
“I remember that. I always say a prayer to the Holy Spirit before I speak publicly. God has better things to say and better ways to say them than I do, and I rely on him. I’m surprised by my speech many times.”
Surely as a strong pro-life member of the Senate he will be giving many during this term.
The Icon and Its Meaning
The icon of Our Lady of Connecticut, Virgin Mother of the Holy Vine, was finished and blessed at St. Martha Church in Enfield in 1994. The inspiration for it came a year earlier, 1,900 miles away in Denver.
At World Youth Day, a familiar icon of the Blessed Mother that incorporated symbols of Colorado was given to St. Pope John Paul II. That gave Father Smolenski the idea for an icon of Our Lady of Connecticut.
The highlights describe how Our Lady of Connecticut began with the traditional image of the centuries-old icon of Our Lady of Holy Protection which sources date back to the 10th century. It was associated with a place then — her help for Constantinople.
Next, renowned iconographer Marek Czarnecki, of Meriden, Connecticut, who wrote the Year of the Priest icon for the United States bishops, was picked to bring to the icon official symbols of Connecticut.
The state motto was added to the veil that is draped from both her hands. Qui Transtulit Sustinet it reads — “He Who Transplanted Still Sustains.”
Angels stand to either side of Mary. One angel pours the waters of Baptism, the other angel holds a chalice and raises a host.
The grape arbors planted to either side of Mary come from the state shield. At the same time they refer to Jesus’ teaching on the vine and the branches in John 15. To their sides are mountain laurels, the state flower. The stream running from side to side and underlining the scenes represents the Connecticut River.
There are many Biblical references too, such as the rays behind her identifying Our Lady as the woman clothed with the sun (Revelations 12:1).
Several beautiful, universal teachings from Scripture and tradition are contained in more symbols in the icon, including a connection of Mary to the Eucharist. Among them, one relates to what Pope Benedict XVI would emphasize in his May 14, 2006, Angelus message as he spoke of Fatima. “A sure way of remaining united to Christ, as branches to the vine, is to have recourse to the intercession of Mary, whom we venerated yesterday, 13 May, in a particular way, recalling the apparitions at Fatima…”
Stretching things a bit, there’s the District number — No. 13 — for which Suzio is state senator. In the same way, there’s that original inspiration from the Denver icon, but the priest iconographer based that one on the traditional Our Lady of the Sign icon. But wait — there is a Byzantine Catholic Church in Denver named — Holy Protection of the Mother of God. That recalls the basis for the Our Lady of Connecticut icon.
And there is this piece of the story told by Aaron Joseph. It seems the iconographer and the master cabinetmaker of the case for the icon both gave a July delivery date. Summer came and went and no contact. Neither in September.
But during the last week of that month a woman called from Illinois. She met Father Smolenski on pilgrimage that March asked if she could help him. When he told her about the icon, she insisted on sponsoring it.
A few days later the iconographer phoned that the icon was completed. That same evening, the cabinetmaker told Father he just finished the case — and his employer was fully donating it. On October 6 the woman’s check arrived.
The following morning, Friday, October 7, the case and check were delivered to the iconographer for him to install the completed icon. It was the Feast of Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary — the title that Mary used in the October 13 apparition to identify herself at Fatima.
Joseph’s summary has one answer. “The icon of Our Lady of Connecticut is not merely a grace given to those who live in the state of Connecticut, for we have in this icon a grace that is very rich, deep and universal, and by reflecting on the events as they took place, one cannot miss the hand of God in the icon’s creation.”