Niagara Falls’ Neighbors
One Giant Cataract, Two Minor Basilicas
While there are dozens of basilicas in the United States (82 to be exact), it is in one of the smallest dioceses that two basilicas exist less than 25 miles from each other: Our Lady of Victory National Shrine in Lackawana, N.Y., and Our Lady of Fatima National Shrine in Youngstown, N.Y. Both are in the relatively small Diocese of Buffalo, which is also home to Niagara Falls. And they could not possibly be more different, or distinct, from one another.
It should be noted that the Diocese of Youngstown, Ohio, also has a couple of basilicas of its own, but they are much more recently named (both were elevated to the title of “minor basilica” within the last few years). And in the larger dioceses and archdioceses — Brooklyn-Queens and New York, one finds multiple basilicas, as one might expect. Not for nothing is Brooklyn called “The Borough of Churches.” And California, with its plethora of mission churches, has its rightful share of basilicas as well.
But this is not a competition. Rather, it is a quick survey of two completely different types of basilica that reside in the Diocese of Buffalo.
But what is a basilica? It is simply a papal church. The most famous example of this is, of course, St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. In theory — and only in theory — if the Pope were to visit the Buffalo Diocese, his “home” church would be Our Lady of Victory (colloquially called “Father Baker’s”) or Our Lady of Fatima (nicknamed “Fatima Shrine”). Prestige point: St. Joseph’s Cathedral in downtown Buffalo would not be the Pope’s home away from home: It remains the see of the bishop of Buffalo only.
However, in the case of the Diocese of Buffalo, whose Catholic population is about 700,000 souls, it’s pretty amazing that it is home to America’s second-oldest basilica and perhaps the most avant-garde/post-modern basilica as well.
Our Lady of Victory
First, Our Lady of Victory Basilica was founded and built and, amazingly, paid for by Venerable Msgr. Nelson Baker — who eschewed all these titles to simply be known as “Father Baker.” It is a massive, soaring, Romanesque-Gothic structure whose dome was, when built in 1926, the largest dome in the United States, save for the Capitol building in Washington. To visit this basilica is to be transported back to the great churches of Europe in general and France in particular, where Father Baker had gone on pilgrimage and first got the idea of a giant church dedicated to Our Lady of Victory going in his mind’s eye.
Our Lady of Victory Basilica is truly a colossal structure, one that really has to be seen to be believed, but it has very little open land around it — mainly because it is surrounded by Father Baker’s school, orphanage, hospital, “open-crib” policy home for “foundlings” (where a woman could literally just walk in and drop off a newborn baby, no questions asked — a policy for which Father Baker was given much grief at the time), a convent and, more recently, a home for children who suffer from any and all sorts of physical, mental and emotional illness and abuse. It was only after all these many good works had been up and running and serving the poorest of the poor, the most helpless and the most marginalized (Father Baker in particular worked with the African-American community) that Venerable Father Baker turned his mind, eyes and soul to building what was then the largest Roman Catholic church in America. It was the finale in his 95-year life, and he lived to see it completed and, miraculously, paid off.
It was named a basilica instantly, in 1926. It was, at that time, only the second basilica in the United States.
Our Lady of Fatima
Less than 30 miles north of this historic landmark is its architectural antithesis: Our Lady of Fatima National Shrine and Basilica. In fact, if one didn’t know it was a church, it could easily be mistaken for a gigantic greenhouse. Where Father Baker went for an almost archaic soaring edifice, the Barnabite Fathers, who were deeded acres and acres of land in Youngstown to build this shrine to Our Lady of Fatima, went for sheer space.
While “Fatima Shrine,” as it is locally known, is literally a 10-ton statue of Mary on top of a plexiglass version of the Northern Hemisphere (replete with both a map of the world and with stairs that allow peregrines to climb to the top of the shrine), its real delight is outdoors: Here, one finds the world’s largest outdoor Rosary (surrounded by life-size statues of the apostles; shown in shrine photo), an outdoor Stations of the Cross etched on clear glass, a life-size replica of the original church in Fatima, Portugal, where Mary appeared in the early part of the 20th century, and, most spectacularly, an “Avenue of the Saints,” which features hundreds of life-size statues of practically every saint you’ve ever heard of — and many, I promise, you haven’t.
Begun in the mid-1950s, completed in the mid-1960s and made a basilica in 1975, Fatima Shrine boasts a one-of-a-kind altarpiece that is absolutely unlike anything ever conceived, before or since: Taken from the Book of Revelation, and executed by the late Joseph Slawinski’s etching in stone and then colored — almost like stained glass in stone — the left side shows the results of a nuclear holocaust, including the massive mushroom cloud. On the right side, men and women live in harmony and peace. And in the center is the Woman from the Apocalypse about to bring forth the New Heaven. “The Peace Mural” as it is called, is an astonishing 24 feet by 7 1/2 feet. Regrettably, during its current renovation, slated to run through 2017, this sui generis altar piece has been moved to a makeshift museum behind the church itself.
If you’ve managed to read this far, you may be wondering: “So what? Two basilicas in one diocese. What’s the big deal?”
For me, what is remarkable here is how these two different basilicas represent the one Catholic faith. Our Lady of Victory harkens back to a time and place that has been perfectly and loving preserved: It is a testament to Father Baker’s vision and devotion to Our Lady under her title Our Lady of Victory and completed in a style that will transport you back to Europe. Surrounded by Father Baker’s still-vibrant legacy, it shows that, truly, “faith without good works is dead.” Our Lady of Victory Basilica remains a proud piece of local lore and architecture.
By contrast, Our Lady of Fatima Shrine is clearly a monument of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65): Its circular design, postmodern art and architecture and accent on peace recall the two popes who began and completed that seminal Council, St. John XXIII and Blessed Paul VI. Further, the Barnabite Fathers who run the shrine (their official name is the Clerics Regular of St. Paul), have built a seminary right on the grounds, emphasizing education and the formation of religious clergy. Unlike Our Lady of Victory, the Fatima Shrine brings in tens of thousands of pilgrims of all backgrounds, but in particular Filipinos and Vietnamese from Canada.
The most famous landmark in the Diocese of Buffalo is, of course, Niagara Falls, a wonder of the world and a must-see for every tourist of any (or no) faith. But for the Catholic visiting Niagara Falls, trips to the two very different basilicas will provide spiritual solace and inspiration — and two totally different views of the Catholic Church as outstanding artwork.
Kevin DiCamillo is an editor and
writer of many books.
- Dec. 13-26, 2015