Philadelphia’s Miraculous Medal Shrine Named Newest Basilica in the United States
Marian church has long drawn souls closer to Christ and Our Lady.
PHILADELPHIA — The rich history of Catholicism in Philadelphia has become even richer.
Pope Francis just named The Miraculous Medal Shrine in the City of Brotherly Love as the 92nd basilica in the United States. The honor came two months after the 193rd anniversary of the manifestation of the Miraculous Medal.
With the honor comes a change of names to the Basilica Shrine of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal. The shrine joins the Cathedral-Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul as one of the city’s two minor basilicas. With this designation, the shrine will now have the privilege of celebrating the feast of the Chair of St. Peter and the anniversary of the pope’s election into pastoral ministry; in addition, it may grant plenary indulgences.
Philadelphia Archbishop Nelson Pérez said in a Jan. 25 press release, “I am deeply grateful to the Holy Father for bestowing this tremendous honor on The Miraculous Medal Shrine. This moment is one of great joy for the entire Church in Philadelphia.”
“The Miraculous Medal Shrine is a great gift drawing souls closer to Christ through the intercession of the Blessed Mother,” the archbishop added. “I congratulate the Vincentians and all those working to sustain the Shrine and its ministry. May their work continue to bear great fruit.”
Speaking about this great new honor, Father Timothy Lyons, the shrine’s rector, told the Register, “It’s really about the incredible devotion that people bring to the shrine. The long and deep love they bring comes from the incredible history of the outreach of the shrine that has gone all around the world.”
Because the Basilica Shrine of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal is where the “Perpetual Novena” of the Miraculous Medal originated decades ago, the large granite Romanesque church in the city’s Germantown section, north of downtown, has been familiar to countless people over the years. Atop the 125-foot-tall bell tower there stands a 14-foot-tall statue of Mary Immaculate gazing over the city.
First dedicated in November 1878 as the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception for the Vincentian Fathers’ major seminary, that same year at the archdiocese’s request, the Vincentians opened the chapel to those living in the poor, working-class neighborhood who were without a parish church. At the time, there was a great influx of Irish immigrants joined by Italian immigrants. With no parish in the neighborhood to serve them, this large chapel acted as a public church for all local souls.
The Chapel of the Immaculate Conception could not have been given a better name for what eventually would also become this shrine because the official name of the Miraculous Medal is the “Medal of the Immaculate Conception.”
It was here, in 1915, after Vincentian Father Joseph Skelly received special favors from Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal that he founded the Central Association of the Miraculous Medal to spread devotion to Mary under this title and to distribute the medal.
Miraculous Medal’s History
“Have a medal struck after this model,” our Blessed Mother told Sister Catherine Labouré 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.
In 1927, Father Skelly began holding a novena to Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal four times yearly. Under his leadership, his congregation expanded the chapel by adding the shrine to Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal. Cardinal Dennis Dougherty dedicated the new shrine to Our Lady that fills the church’s huge right transept. Also in 1927, Father Skelly called this magnificent Chapel of the Immaculate Conception the “Center and Heart” of the Association of the Miraculous Medal — the reason for also calling it Mary’s Central Shrine.
Father Lyons told the Register that when he was in seminary a priest told him that “Father Skelly was so close to the Blessed Mother” that living “with him it was like living with the Blessed Mother. He made her presence real.”
“Through him, the love, that presence, that compassion is what we do now,” the priest said. “We make it real for folks in the same way we have to make Jesus real in the Gospel and living in life. It is so important that the shrine brings the Blessed Mother closer to people. In a very special way, the tenderness, the compassion and the loveliness of the Blessed Mother is so important for folks.”
Image in Marble
In her main shrine, depicted in a life-size statue appearing as she did to St. Catherine Labouré in the third apparition, our Blessed Mother is shown extending her hands, ready to receive everyone and pour out graces.
This image of Our Lady carved from Carrara marble is considered one of the finest anywhere. 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 the mosaics on the front of the altar that depict in fine details the Madonna of the Chair and Madonna of the Globe, the first and second apparitions to Catherine Labouré. All three apparitions join together on this shrine altar as a constant reminder of Our Lady’s appearances to the holy nun.
Another two silver mosaics on either side of Our Lady’s statue raise visitors’ eyes back up to the holy image as they illustrate the front and back of the Miraculous Medal, yet another of the many reminders of the apparition and its message and meaning.
In fact, the whole Basilica Shrine radiates with glorious colorful marbles and liturgical art honoring our Blessed Mother. Images of the Miraculous Medal appear in many places, including on the door of the new tabernacle in the main sanctuary. Even the reverse of the medal is displayed on the pedestal holding the statue of St. Catherine.
The chapel’s half dome glimmers with Venetian mosaics set in a luminous gold-mosaic background. In the dome’s center, the resplendent picture is of the Holy Spirit and the Eye of God the Father surrounded by a cloud of angels. Our Blessed Mother appears with Sts. Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac to either side of her. St. Vincent founded both the Vincentian Fathers and St. Catherine’s order, the Daughters of Charity.
Of course, Mary is venerated and honored everywhere. The chapel’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, including the Star of David and the Trinity. This shrine’s seven Gothic Revival-style stained-glass windows present 14 events in our Blessed Mother’s life, from her birth to her coronation. Here, a rose window in Chartes style presents stained-glass petals encircling Our Lady.
Also pictured are saints with a special devotion to her, including Thérèse the Little Flower, Bernadette, Dominic and Louis de Montfort. The stained-glass windows in the church and its shrines were added between 1890 to circa 1920 and also appear in Munich style for the Sacred Heart shrine and American opalescent Tiffany style for saints’ depictions in the nave. Another rose window brings even more liturgical scenes and symbols.
How many hundreds of millions of prayers have been offered to our Blessed Mother at this very shrine since Father Skelly originated the perpetual novena on Dec. 8, 1930, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, as part of the 100th anniversary celebration of her apparitions to St. Catherine Labouré. 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, the novena went on with a few hardy souls. Although today people average in the hundreds for the perpetual novena prayed immediately before the day’s three Masses, in earlier years as many as 10,000 came.
During World War II, more than 14,000 came. Some regulars have maintained this devotion throughout their lives, like one couple, whose names are known to God, who came to the 7am Mass and novena for 40 years. Today, some who began attending the novena as children and are now grandparents still faithfully attend Monday services.
People coming to the novena and the shrine are acting upon Mary’s directives, as Our Lady is said to have told St. Catherine about difficulties and dire situations: “But come to the foot of this altar often. Here many graces will be given to everyone who asks for them. They will be given to the rich and to the poor, the great and the lowly.”
That’s why novenas include Masses. And the sacrament of penance is always available before services on Mondays. Confessions are heard at these times because Father Skelly insisted on this sacrament always being available then.
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, family reconciliation, peace in the home, jobs, and health to healed marriages, help with exams and safety in travel.
As for cures, today, many of the thanksgivings people share are for someone’s cure of alcoholism or freedom from drugs or favors granted to people experiencing infertility. Many people pray for societal issues, too, from the many Masses for victims and the affected family members during the COVID crisis to people seeking an end to violence in society.
Father Lyons said that since some people cannot make the novena on Monday, the novena prayers are now being done before all the weekday Masses, too. He calls it “a wonderful gift to people.”
At the shrine, people also stop at the colorful statue rendition of the first apparition near the main altar. Many pilgrims place written petitions directly in the hands or at the feet of the statues of Our Lady and St. Catherine. Behind them is a beautiful statue of St. Joseph with Jesus that was carved in Rome. And by the altar of the shrine is another great treasure — a replica of the chair the Blessed Mother sat on while speaking to St. Catherine on July 18, 1830. Within it is a piece of the fabric from the original. This second-class relic was donated by St. Catherine’s motherhouse in Paris. Another treasure includes one of the first 10 Miraculous Medals struck in France in 1832.
Nearby in the apse, the 19th-century murals are part of the original paintings. So are the three extraordinary Old Masters-style 18-foot-tall murals of the Annunciation, Immaculate Conception and Nativity done in the 1890s. Since the church was being renovated when Mary was declared “Mother of the Church,” the newer mural high in the dome is dedicated to “Mary, Mother of the Church.”
People also visit and pray in the lower church, where the Shrine of Our Lady of the Globe presents Mary’s Second Apparition to St. Catherine. It, too, is resplendent with the beautiful marble statue of Mary and exquisite mosaics telling the story of her apparitions. On the walls to either side are large, colorful mosaic scenes of the apparitions, one being Our Lady’s appearance to St. Catherine as rays of graces stream like sunbeams from her hands.
There are also four cultural Marian shrines, including Our Lady of Fiat, Our Lady of Guadalupe, Our Lady of Vailankanni and Our Lady of La Leche. Our Lady of Knock Shrine will be completed this spring and will become the cornerstone of the Basilica Shrine’s new outdoor St. Vincent’s Rosary Walk.
Father Lyons said he hopes that this shrine, now a new basilica, will draw even more pilgrims and worshippers to pray and seek the aid and comfort of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal.
Like the medal, this basilica shrine reminds the faithful to constantly 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.”
MiraculousMedal.org; the perpetual novena is prayed both in person and livestreamed on Facebook and Instagram every Monday.
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- our lady of the miraculous medal
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- archdiocese of philadelphia
- joseph pronechen