A Visit to the ‘American Czestochowa’

National Shrine Honors Mary, John Paul II and Polish Catholicism: Aug. 26 issue feature.

High on the list of most-visited Catholic shrines in the world is Our Lady of Czestochowa in Poland. Blessed John Paul II prayed there countless times; he had a lifelong devotion to Our Lady of Czestochowa.

Before becoming Pope, he also visited the "American Czestochowa" — the National Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa in Doylestown, Pa.

This American Czestochowa has strong connections to the centuries-old original at Jasna Góra in Czestochowa (Chez-ta-HO-va). It also has connections to John Paul II.

The shrine draws pilgrims by the score to its 200 acres, especially on weekends and for its many liturgical feasts and events. One of the largest celebrations is the annual feast of Our Lady of Czestochowa on Aug. 26.

Another is the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary on Oct. 7, when, again, thousands take part in the outdoor Rosary candlelight procession.

The shrine is built on what’s known as Beacon Hill overlooking Peace Valley in historic Bucks County, 25 miles from Philadelphia. (A priest told me that Jasna Góra means "Beacon Hill" or "Bright Mountain.")

My wife, Mary, and I found much on our pilgrimage here: the spiritual, liturgical and physical beauty and the presence of our Blessed Mother.

The American Czestochowa began simply in 1955, with a shrine chapel in a small barn. There, the Pauline Fathers and Brothers from Poland celebrated Mass and enshrined on the altar an image of Our Lady of Czestochowa. It was blessed at Jasna Góra and touched to the miraculous original.

The religious order had come to serve Polish-Americans in the United States. Pilgrim numbers grew so rapidly that there was no question: They had to build a bigger shrine. Ground was broken in 1964 on the feast of Our Lady of Czestochowa. By Oct. 16, 1966, the huge new shrine to honor Our Lady of Czestochowa, the Queen of Peace, was dedicated by the Philadelphia archbishop, later Cardinal John Krol. More than 125,000 pilgrims attended, including President Lyndon Johnson and his family. (President Ronald Reagan visited in 1984.)

The timing was providential. The shrine was dedicated just as Poland was celebrating 1,000 years as a Christian nation.

During the next 10 years, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla visited twice: first in 1969; then in 1976, while attending the Eucharistic Congress in Philadelphia. So many attended his Mass at the shrine that he had to celebrate it outdoors.

Only yards from that spot stands the new 25-foot-tall statue of John Paul II, his arms wide and upraised, as if to welcome and lead visitors into the shrine. The pedestal carries his motto — "Totus Tuus" — plus his constant teaching: "Open wide the doors to Christ."

As Holy Father, in 1980, John Paul blessed the copy of the icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa in the lower chapel.

In this lower chapel, we felt as close as we could get this side of the Atlantic to the original. It’s an exact replica of the centuries-old shrine, from the icon to the ebony-toned wood altar, silver art and extensive grillwork. Here, weekday Masses and daily adoration take place. Ex-votos, many of them rosaries, line the chapel’s side walls in thanksgiving for miracles received here.

The lower church holds four additional chapels, beautiful in purpose and appearance. The Chapel of Divine Mercy has the life-size picture of Jesus as he appeared to St. Faustina, and wall murals remind the faithful of Jesus’ mercy. Divine Mercy Sunday is another of the larger celebrations here.

The Chapel of Mary of Nazareth transports one to the Holy Family’s home. In an absolutely beautiful life-sized statue, Mary appears to be walking out the door to greet visitors. John Paul II blessed and crowned this statue before it arrived. This is the second by the sculptor — the original is in the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth.

Wall murals with scenes such as Joseph and Jesus working together draw one to meditate on the beauty of the Holy Family’s life and example.

There is also the Chapel of Our Lady of Guadalupe and the Chapel of St. Paul the First Hermit. In fact, the official title of the Pauline Fathers is the Order of St. Paul the (First) Hermit.

This order has been the guardian of the original Our Lady of Czestochowa ever since the 1380s, when Prince Ladislaus of Opolczyk gave the Pauline monks this duty. Tradition records that Our Lady herself picked the location.

The picture was discovered in the early fourth century by St. Helena. Tradition holds that Luke the Evangelist painted this image of Mary and the Christ Child on a wooden table made by St. Joseph.

On Our Lady’s cheek are highly visible slashes suffered in 1430 from the sword of a Hussite in an attack on the Polish shrine. Every effort to repair the damage has always failed. It’s as if Our Lady is also showing herself as a sorrowful mother. We thought it also relates to Poland’s own recoveries after its times of tribulation.

Miracles related to this picture date back many centuries. After one in 1676, Our Lady was named Queen of the Polish Crown.

The National Shrine in Doylestown has another copy of Our Lady of Czestochowa in the main upper church. Pope John XXIII blessed this one in 1962. The icon is "framed" within a bas relief on the sanctuary wall. Mary is surrounded by the Holy Trinity. God the Father stretches out his arms, Jesus stands in majesty by Our Lady, the Holy Spirit hovers above, and choirs of angels play trumpets to glorify God.

Spiritual strength comes from the Blessed Sacrament altar, with its Last Supper mosaic filling one wall; the St. Joseph Altar is close by, with its mosaic scenes of the Joyful Mysteries.

Set into the nearby flooring we saw stones from the Holy Land, Lourdes, Fatima, Loreto and Guadalupe.

In the nave, we studied two stained-glass windows condensing Catholic-Christian contributions to America and 1,000 years of Christianity in Poland. Above them, the outstanding pipe organ is dedicated to Blessed Jerzy Popieluszko, a priest who was murdered by communists because he supported the Solidarity Movement. Polish virtuoso pianist and statesman Ignacy Paderewski is also remembered. And a long wall commemorates World War II Polish airmen and soldiers.

Behind the main sanctuary, the St. Anne Chapel draws one toward the altar and the lovely painting of St. Anne with Mary as a young girl. To the side, a mural on canvas called Poland, Always Faithful was painted by Polish-born muralist Jan Henryk de Rosen. Before he arrived in America in 1939, Pope Pius XI commissioned him to paint murals in his private chapel at Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer residence. His mosaics also appear in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington.

The new visitor center, which displays John Paul II’s beatification portrait, has a gift shop (open daily) and cafeteria (open on weekends).

Nearby is a votive candle chapel, the Ave Maria Retreat House for pilgrim groups and the restored barn chapel.

We found Eucharistic and Marian devotions everywhere, including amid the life-size granite sculptures in the new Rosary Garden.

When John Paul II visited Poland’s Czestochowa in June 1997, during his visit’s farewell ceremony, he said, before the icon: "Totus tuus! I am all yours! I consecrate to you the whole Church — everywhere and to the ends of the earth! I consecrate to you humanity; I consecrate to you all men and women, my brothers and sisters. All the peoples and the nations. … Mother, accept us! Mother, do not abandon us! Mother, be our guide!"

We can pray likewise at the American Czestochowa.

Joseph Pronechen is the
Register’s staff writer.

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