Help for Christians Along the Scenic Hudson

A New York shrine honors Mary and the Salesian saint known as 'the father and teacher of youth’

Exactly 100 years ago, just after the death of St. John Bosco, members of his Salesian order arrived in New York City. They were responding to the call of Archbishop Michael Augustine Corrigan to minister to a growing population of Italian immigrants.

Since then, Salesian priests, brothers, and sisters have staffed schools, parishes, and youth and retreat centers, in New York and across the country.

A special monument to the Salesians’ work lies just 35 miles outside the city, in West Haverstraw, New York. There the order established a Marian Shrine, on 200 scenic acres above the Hudson River, honoring the Blessed Mother in her title most favored by St. John Bosco. This is the National Shrine of Mary, Help of Christians.

The Salesians began this shrine as a simple place of devotion in the late 1940s. Things began to change in 1954, when the order built the Rosary Way to observe the Marian Year, and large numbers of pilgrims streamed up the Hudson Valley to pray along this “Gospel trail.” This prompted a major expansion of the Marian Shrine into what the current director, Salesian Father Jerry Sesto, describes as “a huge facility.”

The Rosary Way remains a key attraction of the shrine, with life-sized representations of the mysteries in marble, carved in Italy by Enrico Arrighini. The Way winds along a mile of woodland paths, with shrines of Lourdes and Fatima at one end of the path. The Fatima grotto, in particular, has an original interpretation: Our Lady is shown standing on an arch, reminiscent of a rainbow, that spans a rock-edged pool. The three Fatima children kneel attentively before her on rocks that break the pool's surface.

Yet before visitors even reach the woodland prayer trails of the Rosary Way, they come upon the Don Bosco Pavilion Chapel. One of three chapels at the Shrine, the pavilion is dominated by a statue of St. John Bosco standing with two boys, representing the particular devotion to youth which marked the saint's mission. At the base of the statue are his words: “Anyone in trouble is my friend.” Within this pavilion chapel, a statue of Mary holding the Child Jesus, inscribed “Our Lady Help of Christians, Pray for Us,” is a reminder of the shrine's patroness.

The nearby paved road-walkway continues onto acres of rolling lawn, where our Lady is honored as the Rosary Madonna. Though the bronze statue is an impressive 48-feet tall, Mary is a gentle, welcoming presence for all.

The 6.5-ton statue was designed by Martin Lumen Winter of New York, cast in Italy in 1959, and blessed at the Vatican by Pope John XXIII. Later donated to the Marian shrine, it was placed Sept. 25, 1977, on a pedestal of Vermont stone resting on a star-shaped base—much like the base, further down river, which upholds the Statue of Liberty. Further up the river from that monument of political freedom, the Rosary Madonna awaits, facing the Hudson, welcoming those who seek the freedom of the Children of God.

Further along the lawns, the outdoor altar accommodates gatherings that draw 4,000-7,000 on particular feasts or for certain devotions. The feast of Mary Help of Christians (May 24) was long the traditional feast of the shrine; Divine Mercy Sunday, a week after Easter, is a newer observance here. Other key celebrations are the feasts of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Dec. 12, and of St. John Bosco on Jan. 31—though these are celebrated in the indoor chapels.

Yet even in cool weather, the “outdoor cathedral” invites a stop. The marble altar, the statue of Mary Help of Christians honored high behind it, and the resplendent mosaics lie beneath a baldachinolike protective structure, topped by dome and cross. Along with our Lady, St. John Bosco is depicted with St. Dominic Savio, and St. Mary Mazzarello with Bl. Laura Vicuna.

The road from the pavilion chapel to this altar passes Becchi House, an authentic replica of Don Bosco's birthplace in Italy. At age 9, Bosco dreamed of a confrontation with a crowd of unruly youths. A “majestic” man saved him, then ordered him to take charge by using kindness. When the man gave young John his mother as “teacher and guide,” our Lady appeared to reassure the young saint.

After ordination, Bosco drew about himself a group of troubled boys and orphans in Turin. There, he eventually erected a shrine church to Mary Help of Christians. Hundreds of boys at a time attended his Oratory, drawn to his mix of prayer, song, catechism, games, athletics, and picnics. In this past decade, Pope John Paul II declared the saint “Father and Teacher of Youth.”

Bosco's Oratorian spirit of a family that welcomes, a school that educates and prepares for life, and a church that evangelizes, remains at the Marian Shrine and its major retreat center. “Children love to come up,” says Father Sesto. Last year alone, thousands came for retreat and summer camp.

The retreat apostolate is strong for both children and adults. There are ample boys and girls dorms, and a newer adult retreat house accommodating 100 doubles or 50 singles. Retreats range from a day to a week, and youth retreats are tailored for high school by classes, for graduations, and for confirmations.

The simple spontaneity of Don Bosco's Oratorian spirit of prayer, study, and play is meant to imbue everything with religious and joyful aspects. Facilities at the shrine include another chapel, a large cafeteria, a gym, outdoor courts, and sports fields. There's a large gift and book shop appealing to all visitors.

The shrine has daily Mass and recitation of the Rosary, and confession is available. Groups can schedule devotions, including Mass.

The Marian shrine is halfway between the George Washington Bridge and West Point, using Route 9W along the Hudson River, or Palisades Parkway to Exit 14. Either route has scenic spots, and both touch Filors Lane. For information, call the shrine at 914-947-2200, or write to West Haverstraw, N.Y. 10993.

Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.