Mary, Larger Than Life and Just as Lovely

As I strolled along the rose-bordered path toward the Mariam Mother of Life Shrine at St. Ephrem Maronite Catholic Church in El Cajon, Calif., I observed that the massive statue of the Madonna and child looks like a natural part of the landscape.

The brick-and-concrete base swells from the pavement like a two-story beehive, the gentle curves of the mother’s loving arms and the child’s trusting face hovering nearly 30 feet overhead.

On this weekday morning, the church grounds were quiet, with occasional students from St. Ephrem’s Academy crossing from one classroom to another. Alone at the shrine, I lingered before the small altar, elegant in its simplicity, and admired the mural of Our Lady of Guadalupe that is in progress in the grotto where the altar stands.

I wandered up the stairs to the top of the shrine, pausing to glance at the bas-relief Sorrowful Mysteries that wind around the wall. The names of the Glorious Mysteries are engraved on stone plaques around the grotto archway. The Luminous and Joyful Mysteries, I learned, will also eventually be displayed on the shrine. (May 31, by the way, is the feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary — the Second Joyful Mystery of the Rosary.)

At the summit I craned my neck to stare up at Mary and her Son, and to marvel at Mary’s massive hands — big enough to cradle all the cares I could pile into them. Fiery roses lay scattered across her feet, offerings from earlier visitors.

Every major aspect of the statue draws from Scripture, from Mary’s curly hair (“Your hair is like a flock of goats streaming down the mountains of Gilead” (Song of Songs 4:1) to the column that supports her sure feet (“What is this coming up from the desert, like a column of smoke laden with myrrh, with frankincense, and with the perfume of every exotic dust?” (Song of Songs 3:6) to her powerful right hand (“For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness. He has shown might with his arm” Luke 1:48, 51).

The statue was created by a Lebanese sculptor in stone carved from a Lebanese mountain — but the concept of the shrine itself is also “very Lebanese,” says St. Ephrem’s pastor, Father Nabil Mouannes. There visitors can see Marian shrines on almost every hill because of the Holy Mother’s historically close connection to the Maronite community, particularly during the years that they were persecuted for their Christian beliefs.

“In our history, Mary was our companion,” says Father Mouannes. “She was our helper, she was our grace, she was our protection. Jesus is Lord, but Mary is the mother. She took care of us, led us and fed us, and now she brings all our concerns to Jesus.”

Lebanese Lilt

The shrine itself is an outward sign of the faith that pushed parishioners and pastor alike to persevere in establishing St. Ephrem despite many challenges. The local community of Maronite Catholics, most of them Lebanese, first had to wait for a resident priest. Before Father Mouannes was assigned as the community’s pastor, a visiting priest had to make the 90-minute drive down from Orange County on Sundays to celebrate Mass.

Then the community searched for an available tract of land, never an easy proposition in development-driven Southern California.

The tract they originally purchased was fraught with obstacles, so the people of St. Ephrem looked elsewhere. At last they discovered a former Lutheran church for sale in El Cajon. The 1999 purchase brought its own complications, but what sticks in the minds of parishioners is the struggle the community had meeting local regulations and restrictions to construct the shrine.

At last, in 2003, construction was complete. Now the shrine rises proudly against a green hillside, and is a beacon visible from State Rte. 125, on which traffic races past the church property.

Since then, St. Ephrem has become known for its Memorial Day Weekend shrine festival, a combination Marian festival and Lebanese celebration. “We’re exposing our traditions under her grace to give them to others,” explains Father Mouannes, “and also for sure bringing many people to her grace.”

Closer to Mary

Visiting this parish and its shrine, I felt surrounded by a deep and vibrant faith that is unique and yet also harmonizes with my own. Icons decorate the church and publications available in the vestibule speak of Maronite churches in the Middle East as though they were close neighbors.

The overwhelming majority of parishioners are Middle Eastern Maronite Catholics, though a growing minority of Roman Catholics celebrates Mass at St. Ephrem, too. Cultural ties have made it easy for St. Ephrem to build strong relationships with neighboring Orthodox communities as well. One Orthodox community “borrowed” the church for its Good Friday and Easter celebrations this year.

The Mother of Life statue offers a warm welcome to visitors of all faiths, from Maronite Catholic to Roman Catholic to Orthodox — something Syrian St. Ephrem would likely have been thrilled about. A doctor of the church, the fourth-century Christian (feast: June 9) was devoted to the Virgin Mary. He is considered a witness to the Immaculate Conception because of his absolute assurance of Mary’s sinlessness.

Like St. Ephrem himself, the people of this church named for him are confident that the Holy Mother will bring more people to the heart of Jesus, and that the Mother of Life Shrine will help visitors develop a stronger relationship with her.

“We want to have people come and visit,” says parishioner Anne Redlinger, a Roman Catholic who has found a spiritual home at St. Ephrem. “We want more people to come for devotion to Mary — to bring them closer to Mary.”

Elisabeth Deffner writes from

Orange, California.

Planning Your Visit

Weekday Mass is celebrated at St. Ephrem at 11:30 a.m. Sunday Mass in English is at 9:30 a.m., and Mass in Arabic and English is at 11 a.m. The shrine festival is held annually on Memorial Day weekend.

For more information, call (619) 337-1350 or visit stephrem.org on the Internet.

Getting There

From Interstate 5, head south on Interstate 805, then east on State Rte. 52, then south on State Rte. 125. Exit at

Navajo Road
and turn left onto
Medford Avenue
. St. Ephrem and the Mariam Mother of Life Shrine are located at
750 Medford Ave., El Cajon
.

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