What St. Catherine Laboure Saw, 175 Years On

The Catholic faith has deep roots in Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love.

It was home to Sts. John Neumann and Katharine Drexel, and it's the birthplace of the Perpetual Novena of the Miraculous Medal.

With this Nov. 27 marking the 175th anniversary of the manifestation of the Miraculous Medal, my wife, Mary, and I headed to Philly. In particular, we wanted to visit Central Shrine of the Miraculous Medal — where the perpetual novena originated 75 years ago.

The shrine is a large, granite church in the Germantown section, away from downtown. The church was dedicated in November 1879, as the chapel for the Vincentian Fathers’ major seminary. On Dec. 8, 1901, it became a parish — the Church of the Immaculate Conception.

That was an apt name, we thought, because the official title of the Miraculous Medal is the “Medal of the Immaculate Conception.”

“Have a medal struck after this model,” our Blessed Mother told Sister (now St.) Catherine Laboure on Nov. 27, 1830, when she appeared to her in the Daughters of Charity convent on Rue du Bac in Paris. “All who wear it will receive great graces; they should wear it around the neck. Graces will abound for persons who wear it with confidence.”

The Blessed Mother herself designed the medal. And here in 1915, after Vincentian Father Joseph Skelly received special favors from Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, he founded the Central Association of the Miraculous Medal (CAMM) to spread devotion to Mary under this title and distribute the medals.

By 1927, Father Skelly began holding a novena to Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal four times yearly, and Cardinal Dennis Dougherty dedicated the new shrine to Our Lady. It fills the church's huge right transept.

Father Skelly called this magnificent Chapel of the Immaculate Conception the “Center and Heart” of the Association of the Miraculous Medal — the reason for the name “Mary's Central Shrine.”

Glories of Mary

Here, in the image of a life-sized statue appearing as she did to St. Catherine Laboure in the second apparition, our Blessed Mother extends her hands to receive us and pour out God's graces to us.

This image of Our Lady is finely carved from pure Carrara marble and considered one of the finest in the world. She stands above an exquisite altar with ornamental reredos and central tabernacle, all of white-veined marble and colorful Venetian mosaics.

Delicate spiral columns outline three of the mosaics on the front of the altar. Two capture our Blessed Mother's first and second apparitions to Catherine Laboure in delicate details.

Another two mosaics to either side of Our Lady's statue bring our eyes back up to her, full of grace. The mosaics depict the front and back of the Miraculous Medal in a way that reminds one again of their meanings.

The whole shrine radiates as a glorious palace of colorful marbles and liturgical art for our Blessed Mother. The half dome glimmers with Venetian mosaics set in a luminous gold-mosaic background. In the dome's center, we studied the Holy Spirit and the eye of God the Father surrounded by a cloud of angels.

Also in the dome, our Blessed Mother appears with Sts. Vincent de Paul and Catherine Laboure to either side of her. St. Vincent founded both the Vincentian Fathers and St. Catherine's order, the Daughters of Charity.

Honors go to Mary everywhere. Even the shrine's entire marble floor is inlaid with a mosaic of several rare marbles in roses, greens and golds that surround the name Mary with several liturgical symbols of the Star of David and the Trinity.

High above this shrine, the transept's rose window presents stained-glass petals encircling Our Lady; saints with special devotion to Mary seem delighted to be in her presence at last: Therese of Lisieux, Bernadette, Dominic, Simon, Jude and Louis de Montfort.

We couldn't help but wonder at the thousands — millions? — of prayers offered to our Blessed Mother at this very shrine since Father Skelly originated the perpetual novena on Dec. 8, 1930, as part of the 100th anniversary celebration of her apparitions to St. Catherine Laboure.

Never-ending Novena

Since he established the Perpetual Novena of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal on Monday nights, never has a Monday passed without this novena at Mary's Central Shrine.

Even when a 1995 blizzard shut down this city, a few hearty souls made their way here to continue the streak. Today, an average 1,100 people attend one of Monday's 10 novena services. In earlier years, the soul count reached upwards of 10,000.

At each novena service of homily, prayers and Benediction, the priest starts by reading a few of the thousands of thanks for the favors people have received — everything from conversions to family reconciliations to jobs and health; from healed marriages to help with exams and safety in travel. Today, many of the thanks are for someone's cure of alcoholism or freedom from drugs. Another biggie: couples having trouble getting pregnant.

At the shrine, they also stop at the colorful statue of the first apparition near the main altar. Many pilgrims place written petitions directly in the hands or at the feet of Our Lady and St. Catherine. Behind them is a beautiful statue of St. Joseph with Jesus, carved in Rome.

The shrine in the lower church is also well attended. We found it resplendent with brilliant, exquisite mosaics telling the stories of Mary's apparitions that have been affirmed by the Church.

Across the street, the offices of the Central Association have an extensive Marian museum of fine art. It was closed the day we visited, but primary treasures include one of the first 10 Miraculous Medals struck in France in 1832 and a piece of the cloth from the chair the Blessed Mother sat in during the first apparition.

The shrine, like the medal, reminds us constantly to always honor and petition Our Lady in the words she herself wanted inscribed around her image: “O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.”

Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.

Planning Your Visit

The shrine, located at 500 E. Chelten Ave. in Philadelphia's Germantown section, is open daily from 7:45 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays it's kept open till 8:30 p.m. For a schedule of Masses and novenas, or for information on the museum, call (800) 523-3674 or visit CAMMonline.org on the Internet.

Getting There

From downtown Philadelphia, take Route 611 to Germantown Avenue (Route 422). Turn right on Chelten Avenue. For directions from other starting points, call (800) 523-3674 or visit CAMMonline.org on the Internet.