Bernadette in the New England Wood

Depending on the time of year you see them, Connecticut's Litchfield Hills are either serene or spectacular.

In spring and summer, the hills form honor guards of thick greenery punctuated by the occasional New England town in a valley. In autumn, the Route 8 corridor is swathed in the brilliant oranges, green-yellows and reds of the region's famous fall foliage. Winter's whites completely re-paint the scenery so that formerly obscured rock outcroppings come into beautiful, blanketed view.

In other words, no matter the season, it's a perfect place for a shrine. And Lourdes in Litchfield is, in the humble estimation of this proud Connecticut native, a near-perfect shrine — especially on Feb. 11, the day of Bernadette's initial encounter with the Blessed Mother and the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes. I'm not alone: An average of 30,000 pilgrims and visitors make their way into this spot in the woods each year.

The Montfort Missionaries bought the 150-acre property on which the shrine now sits in 1947 in order to build a seminary. They turned a section of the grounds into a farm; two of the Montfort Brothers came from Italy to grow the vegetables and tend the animals.

In 1954, during the centenary of the declaration of the Immaculate Conception, the idea to build the shrine was planted. The two farmers, Brother Alfonso and Brother Gabriel, then set to work on it in a way that's become legendary.

“The plans of the grotto were a picture-postcard of Lourdes nailed to a tree,” says Father Gene Lynch, one of the three Monfort missionaries who staff the shrine today.

Using army-surplus equipment, bulldozer and truck, the brothers turned the local fieldstone into a beautiful replica of the grotto in Lourdes. They had plenty of help from Montfort seminarians and local artisans. With the grotto at the foot of a hill, they carved out a trail for the Way of the Cross that wends up and around the woodland summit like a crown. Today, the sylvan pathway winding to each of the sculpted-silver stations is paved. A practically continuous canopy of trees forms this part of this “church without walls.”

The shrine is a strong draw for people from a 150-mile radius, and Father Lynch points out that even Muslims, Buddhists and Jews come here to pray. They often tell him they “find God” here. “You can pray anyplace,” he says, “but it's easier to pray in some places.”

Irresistible Itinerary

Some come for private prayer, enfolded in summer's greenery or autumn's splendor. Others come for the daily outdoor Mass during the pilgrimage season and Sunday's Marian Prayer — rosary, Way of the Cross and Benediction.

Father Lynch explains that the shrine staff tries to bring people back to basic Christianity and deepen their baptismal commitment to follow Christ. “Jesus Christ is the end of all devotion to Mary,” he says.

Since the shrine grounds are open all year, it's common to find visitors’ footprints in the snow alongside the tracks of rabbits and deer on the Way of the Cross on the hillside. And speaking of animals, every October, visitors bring their pets for the blessing of animals around the feast of St. Francis.

Another special day comes in May, when hundreds of motorcyclists arrive for the blessing of the bikes. And, in December, children and their parents decorate gingerbread creches together, and teens sing, narrate, and act the living Nativity. Even the neighborhood animals — calves, a donkey, sheep and llamas — get into the act. Everyone gets hot chocolate and home-baked cookies from shrine volunteers who help with everything from the snack bar in Pilgrim Hall to the flowers in the gardens.

Living just an hour away from Lourdes in Litchfield, I find myself drawn here in all seasons. I've always found the natural grounds irresistibly peaceful and picturesque, and now they're being enhanced with flowers that ring trees and adorn a berm that outlines the grotto sanctuary from the plaza. A statue of Bernadette Soubirous kneels here, close to the people, her prayerful expression fixed on the Blessed Virgin Mary in a niche in the stone grotto.

Within the grotto itself, a granite altar is flanked by stands of abundant votive lights that testify to visitors’ faith. Nearby, prayerful pilgrims can touch a stone from the grotto of Lourdes, France, that's affixed on the outer wall of the Litchfield grotto. For us it becomes a tangible connection to the original grotto in which Our Lady actually appeared in 1858.

Faith and Light

It's comforting to sit and pray on the open-air pews under the trees and sky in the large plaza before the grotto. From the plaza, you can let your eyes follow a wide corridor cut through the blue spruce trees on the hillside. Its lines carry your sights to the summit and the larger-than-life-sized crucifixion scene — the 12th Station of the Cross atop a kind of Calvary of the northern woods. The scene is a reverential surprise that, like a magnet, draws you to climb the hillside path along the Way of the Cross to reach it.

On Good Fridays, the missionaries conduct a preached Way of the Cross three times and involve the 1,000 faithful who attend in such moving ceremonies as washing hands at the first station, a la Pontius Pilate, and pounding spikes into a cross at the 11th.

All year long, pilgrims also stop at the quiet shrine of St. Joseph, residing modestly in the background, for more meditation. There are also lovely shrines dedicated to the Sacred Heart, St. Michael, St. Jude and St. Louis de Montfort.

The theme of “lights” figures in one of the shrine's prominent ministries. Every six weeks, the Montfort Missionaries’ “Faith and Light” program brings together the mentally, emotionally and physically handicapped, who gather with relatives for a meal.

One of the miracles of Lourdes in France is the charity of the people there, Father Lynch says. With programs like this, and with the annual ecumenical gathering of people to prepare and preserve harvested food for the poor, Lourdes in Litchfield has its own little miracles, too.

I can't help but wonder if Brother Gabriel and Brother Alphonso, both now well into their 80s and retired in Bergamo, Italy, realize how much their project has accomplished — and continues to accomplish — with only a picture-postcard of Lourdes as a guide. The fruits of their labor in this beautiful setting stand as a peaceful, yet powerful, statement of God's sovereignty and the Blessed Mother's intercessory influence.

Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.

------- EXCERPT: Lourdes in Litchfield (Conn.) is a prayer wonderland in all four seasons