The Light of St. Anne Shines Brightly

Beloved Edifice Includes Largest Catholic Indoor Votive Shrine in Southern New England

Pilgrims have flocked to this shrine since before its completion in 1906.
Pilgrims have flocked to this shrine since before its completion in 1906. (photo: Courtesy of the Shrine of St. Anne)

Four hundred miles directly south from the Shrine of St. Anne de Beaupré in Quebec, Canada, there stands another edifice dedicated to Jesus’ grandmother: the Shrine of St. Anne in Fall River, Massachusetts

Father Roger Landry of the Diocese of Fall River rightly says it is an extraordinary church.

The magnificent twin towers of St. Anne Shrine are visible high above the city of Fall River. A city landmark for decades, the original parish of St. Anne was formed in 1869, when Fall River was growing as the country’s major producer of cotton textiles.

With scores of French Canadians immigrating to work in the mills, the bishop of Providence, Rhode Island, requested a priest from Bordeaux, France, to head a French-speaking parish for this group of faithful. Initially, they were worshipping at St. Mary's Church, now St. Mary's Cathedral. As they were laying and blessing the cornerstone for their first small church, the wooden platform on which the pastor and dozens of parishioners stood collapsed. Some were injured, and the pastor prayed for St. Anne’s help for their recovery and continuation of building the church.

“He promised St. Anne that if no one died, he would name the parish after her because, initially, the parish was going to be named after the famous St. Clotilde in Paris,” explained Michael Antaya, the shrine’s director of devotions. The year was 1872. “That was the initial novena that he made. After that, the novena became a staple.” Never has the novena been missed or skipped, even amid difficult times along the way. This year, the shrine celebrates the 150th anniversary of its solemn novena to St. Anne.

In fact, the novena and devotion to St. Anne grew as the Dominicans were entrusted with the parish in 1887. The second Dominican pastor determined to build this present church that would also be a national shrine for pilgrims. 

His vision was sweeping, and on the feast of St. Anne, July 26, 1892, the first pilgrimage group arrived (although the new upper church had yet to be completed). By 1906, rising majestically in blue Vermont marble and in the grandeur of turn-of-the-century architecture, the church was finally complete. On the French Gothic façade, Jesus appears as the Good Shepherd in one statue, while in a niche higher up, a 9-foot-tall statue presents St. Anne together with her daughter, Mary.

At one time, pilgrims flocked to Fall River all year long to visit and pray at the church and shrine, which was open 24 hours a day. With busloads arriving, the shrine was so popular that, in 1928, Quebec-born Dominican Father Vincent Marchildon — who was considered the great apostle of the shrine — was named the first full-time director; he would spend 60 years leading shrine activities. (This year marks the 50th anniversary of his death.)

In 1978, the Dominicans left St. Anne’s, and the church and shrine reverted back to diocesan administration. Then, on the Solemnity of Christ the King in 2018, the Diocese of Fall River closed St. Anne’s as a canonical parish. Quickly, laypeople came to the rescue, forming the St. Anne’s Shrine Preservation Society. With a lease agreement with the diocese and the blessings of the bishop of Fall River, St. Anne’s rapidly reopened as a shrine in July 2019 — just in time for the solemn novena to continue uninterrupted.

Again this year, people will pray before the larger-than-life-size statue of St. Anne with the child Mary that stood in the upstairs church when the church was dedicated. This statue has been temporarily moved to the lower shrine church. Patterned after the original similar image in St. Anne de Beaupré in Quebec, which was lost in a fire in the early 20th century, it was carved out of a single block of wood and polychromed by Maestro Stalzenburg in Belgium in 1892 at the request of the Fall River Dominicans.

Countless pilgrims and parishioners, over all these decades, have prayed before this image of St. Anne, petitioned for favors and meditated on her holy witness. Shown bedecked in a gold cloak with intricate designs, the portrayal of the child Mary includes a blue dress with designs reminiscent of fleurs-de-lis. Anne is shown looking on lovingly; Mary appears to be gazing at her mother attentively. Both depictions wear golden crowns. The golden heart within the rendition of St. Anne, suspended like a medallion, contains petitions. On a stand is a piece of rock labeled “Pierre de Ste. Anne, Jerusalem.”

This image is a beautiful reminder of her family position — mother of Mary, grandmother of Jesus, wife of Joachim and mother-in-law of Joseph. 

When the parish closed, this statue was transferred to the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption a few blocks away because the parish was merged with the cathedral parish. When the Preservation Society asked the rector if he would allow the statue to be restored to the shrine, he graciously said, “Yes.” After some necessary repairs are made in the upstairs church, St. Anne’s statue will be returned to its original place. In the meantime, the treasured depiction of Good St. Anne joins a second image of the beloved saint in the lower shrine church: She appears with her daughter — Ste. Anne et Marie — before a sunburst of radiant glory. This image of the saint has drawn fervent attention from pilgrims and parishioners since it appeared in the original wooden church.

Near the statues, the rows of crutches attest to the grateful people who have been healed of various maladies through the intercession of Jesus’ grandmother. The Dominicans kept books of responses and stories from the grateful people who claimed healings.

This older statue of St. Anne is “often referred to as the miraculous image of St. Anne,” explained Antaya, also a member of Preservation Society’s directors. Noting that nothing was ever formally investigated for Church approval, he called these reports “favors granted here at the shrine — so much so that the Dominican Fathers kept three volumes of these records of people who wrote back to the shrine, saying that they had received some sort of healing or their prayer was answered in some way.”  

One of the most dramatic examples recorded was of a man born blind who came for the novena in the 1950s and was given sight on the feast of St. Anne.

This year, the solemn novena, which runs July 17-25 with daily Mass, is being led by one of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception. Fall River Bishop Edgar da Cunha will celebrate the solemn Mass for the feast of Sts. Anne and Joachim on July 26.  After Mass, the traditional procession of St. Anne’s first-class relics — fragments of her bones that were acquired by the Dominicans — will wend its way around the neighborhood.

The church’s lower chapel went through a restoration and renewal in 2006. Not only is St. Anne honored, but other small chapels around the ambulatory pay homage to her daughter, too, starting with the chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes. This Lourdes grotto includes running water. There is also a beautiful statue of Our Lady of Fatima as she appears to Sts. Jacinta and Francisco and Servant of God Lúcia, who appear captivated by her message and beauty.

Another relatively new chapel is dedicated to Senhor Santo Cristo Dos Milagres — the Lord Holy Christ of the Miracles — a Portuguese devotion from the Azores to Jesus in his passion.

Three of the Dominicans who served here, including Father Marchildon, are buried in the Dominican crypt chapel with its statues of St. Dominic and other Dominican saints.

Other beautiful statuary includes the renditions of St. Joseph and Our Lady of Grace in the chapel that has been recently fully restored. St. Joseph appears with the Child Jesus. Elsewhere, the image of the Sacred Heart has eyes that appear lifelike and evoke compassion. This popular basement shrine honors other saints, too, like St. Jude and St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Statuary in various niches also remind the faithful of devotions to Sts. Anthony, Padre Pio,  Teresa of Calcutta and Jude. (The Dominicans have great devotion to this saint of hopeless causes.)

Of course, the shrine also honors St. Joachim. He is remembered in the upper church, where his image in a niche facing the sanctuary, prompting pilgrims to invoke the intercession of the holy father and grandfather. Larger-than-life statues of Sts. Peter and Paul and the Four Evangelists also line the sanctuary high in arched shrines. Other statues attest to the faith of the French emigrants who built the church and shrine, as their names are carved on their bases in French.

In the lower shrine church, monthly healing Masses are held by the shrine chaplain, Antaya said. Masses celebrated here are subject to the bishop, and are offered with his permission. There is a Purgatorial Society for people to have intentions or loved ones remembered at certain scheduled services and devotions. With St. Anne’s also being the largest Catholic indoor votive light shrine in Southern New England, with more than 3,000 candles of various sizes in both the lower shrine church and upper church, people often send in donations to have candles lit for their intentions. “Because this place is definitely a holy place, it has attracted people from various parts of the country,” Antaya said. “We have people from Washington state that send donations.”

The Preservation Society is well on its way to fulfilling its mission, as its website explains, “to restore St. Anne’s in its rightful place as a center of worship, pilgrimage and evangelization in promoting the teachings and traditions of the Roman Catholic Church, so that visitors and pilgrims may deepen their conversation with God and align their lives with his will.”

And the intercession of Good St. Anne is sought on her feast day and always.