Liturgical Art Is a Sacred Business

With the town of Bethlehem next door and the community of Nazareth only a short distance away, the city of Allentown, Pa., seems an appropriate home for the National Shrine Centre of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mother of the Americas.

More than 40 dioceses applied to have this memorial chapel within their boundaries, but March 19, 1974, the feast of St. Joseph, the honor went to the relatively new Allentown diocese. The shrine was established in the Church of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, approximately 2,500 miles from the basilica in Mexico City where Juan Diego's tilma is displayed.

Allentown sits right at the crossroads of several major highways leading to each compass point. It's easily reached from Philadelphia by Route 309 to Route 22E, or from New York City via Route 95 to 78 to 22W. Both are less than a 100-mile drive. (Different exits from both directions lead to Tilghman Street. The shrine is located just off Tilghman, on Ridge Avenue.) But there is more to the story of the National Shrine Centre of Our Lady of Guadalupe than easy accessibility. Many threads weave together to form a strong picture of the shrine's presence here.

When Mary appeared to Juan Diego in 1531, no formal country boundaries had yet been established.

Mary told Juan Diego that she was his mother, the mother of all who lived united in this land, and the mother of all mankind. When the Allentown church was dedicated in 1857, recent European immigrants of many nationalities united in worship at Immaculate Conception because it was the first and only Catholic church in the city. In fact, these people learned to live side by side in what was then considered the only “Catholic” part of town.

Because the church was in the Diocese of Philadelphia in the 1850s, its founder happened to be St. John Neumann. As bishop, he had been to Rome for the Dec. 8, 1854 proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. Samuel McGovern, lay director of the shrine since its inception, says that St. John Neumann held the book for Pius X as he proclaimed the Marian dogma.

Significantly, the Immaculate Conception ties strongly into the history of the Guadalupe apparitions. Mary first appeared to Juan Diego on Dec. 9—the former date for the feast of the Immaculate

Conception (before it was changed to Dec. 8). Also, when Bishop Zumarraga saw the image on the tilma, his first response was that it was the Immaculate. Just days later, when Mary also appeared to Juan Diego's uncle, Juan Bernadino, she identified herself as “the perfect and perpetual Virgin Mary,” and the one who “crushes the head of the feathered serpent,” connecting herself with the woman identified in Revelation 12, 1.

Reminders of Mary are constant in the church. The shrine occupies the left side altar and may be readily seen from every pew because the present gothic church, dating from 1900, was designed so that no pillar obstructed anyone's view of services.

The image of Our Lady of Guadalupe displayed as the shrine's focal point is considered by many as the finest reproduction of the original on the tilma in Mexico City. The full-sized image is actually a photograph taken by an American after a rarely-permitted private photo-taking opportunity. McGovern explains that the man was known to the bishops on the shrine selection committee, and he brought the image to the Allentown church two weeks before the dedication of the shrine.

In addition to the shrine altar, Mary is everywhere in this place dedicated to her. As people walk up the aisles or sit in any pew, her life surrounds them. The tall, stained glass windows imported from Germany for this stone church that replaced the original are beautifully detailed Marian scenes. They highlight events in our Lady's life, beginning with the Immaculate Conception, which happens to be the window nearest the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Others that follow are Mary with her parents, her presentation, her marriage to Joseph, the Annunciation, Visitation, Nativity, Jesus’ presentation, the flight into Egypt, the finding in the Temple, family life in Nazareth, the marriage feast at Cana, the death of St. Joseph, Pentecost, and her Coronation.

The 16th and final window shows the Sacred Heart with St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, who was considered a Celt with Gaelic roots by the Irish instrumental in building this church.

McGovern, who grew up in the parish, remembers that every time his grandmother, Alice Donohue, took him to Mass in pre-shrine days, she would bless herself, look at the ceiling, and say, “God have mercy on Kathy Devers's soul.” When he asked her why she did that, she explained that Devers's likeness was a reminder directly above— not once, but a dozen times. The woman's face was the model for all the angels connected with the three huge, mural-like paintings that line the flat central portion of the vaulted ceiling. The parishioners modeled their faces for the scenes of the Annunciation, the Assumption, and the Coronation— painted by Michael O'Donnell, a young local artist, from 1923 to 1925.

To accommodate all the travelers coming to celebrate the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe at the shrine, the feast is held on the Sunday before Dec. 12. (This year, Dec. 7.) The full day begins with exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, and includes a presentation on Our Lady of Guadalupe, confession, rosary, Mass (usually celebrated by a bishop), and the procession of a tilma filled with hundreds of flowers that are blessed and then given to pilgrims to bring to the sick.

Of course, Our Lady of Guadalupe is patroness of the pro-life movement in a special way. After she appeared, the Aztec practice of human sacrifice ended. McGovern reminds people that this shrine is a place of pilgrimage to make reparation for abortion and to pray for a swift end to abortion.

Those staying in the area can find many name motels and hotels off nearby highways 22 and 78, as well as an array of eateries. Among area attractions is the Liberty Bell Shrine in the church where it was hidden during the American Revolution. Not far to the north is the Pocono Mountains area. A few miles south, in Bally, is Blessed Sacrament Church, with a museum. Built in 1741, it's considered the oldest standing Catholic church in the original colonies.

It's fitting then that this area should be home to the national shrine commemorating Mary's oldest apparition in the Americas.

Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull, Conn.