The Wonder Worker's Beantown Digs

St. Anthony Shrine took me by surprise even though I had come to Boston looking for it.

Wedged in a canyonlike wall of moderate high-rises, on a humming, winding, one-way street, the shrine is, from outside at ground level, not recognizable as a place of prayer. Then I looked up. The two-story crucifix hovering over Arch Street was a dead giveaway.

From the corner of Arch Street, which with all its crazy curves could only have begun life as a 17th-century cow path, the sleek building looks right at home. It sits on the block between the city's business and financial districts; just a few blocks away is the government center, the neighborhood in which Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone.

As I got up to the entrance, I could see that many of the sharply dressed professionals who populate these sections each weekday are just as home at St. Anthony's as they are in their offices. And they have plenty of company. College students toting backpacks stride in alongside senior citizens; shoppers with bulging bags are followed by businessmen bearing briefcases. And, of course, the occasional tourist clicking a camera.

Franciscan Father John Ullrich, the shrine's guardian and rector, told me that a couple of thousand people attend one of the 13 Masses that are celebrated daily from morning to evening. Others come to make a confession, pray before the Blessed Sacrament, petition a saint or light a votive candle at one of the several shrines in the church. On Ash Wednesday, upwards of 30,000 queue up along the sidewalks, patiently waiting to receive ashes.

The Franciscans who staff and run St. Anthony Shrine, popularly known as “The Workers' Chapel,” will tell you it's been a busy place for 50 years. Even the 18 Sunday Masses, celebrated in two chapels, an upper and a lower, draw an average total of 4,000 people, none of whom live in the business-commerce district.

Despite all the pedestrian and vehicle traffic whizzing by — subway lines also serve the neighborhood — inside, the chapel gently coaxes visitors to take an instant retreat from all the activity on the streets outside.

The confessionals draw a steady stream of traffic of their own. As one of the main ministries of the shrine, they're manned non-stop by friars from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, except for shorter hours on Sundays.

People coming here find a sense of two things, says Father Ullrich: genuine kindness and a communication of God's forgiveness. “They know they've sinned and need to be forgiven,” he says, adding that it's not uncommon for people who have been away from the confessional for decades to come back to the sacrament here.

Loads of Light

Masses, confessions and popular devotions to St. Anthony and St. Jude draw the multitudes. The great mosaic wall behind the main altar in the lower church is a constant reminder of the shrine's patron, whose feast the Church celebrates June 13, and such a beautiful focal point for meditation. Kneeling before Mary Queen of Angels, the patroness of the Order of Friars Minor, who holds Jesus on her lap and is surrounded by angels, St. Anthony — the Church's most popular saint after Mary, according to a recent poll — offers them homage. He becomes a model of what people can do by going to Jesus through Mary's intercession.

Later I was to discover another great mosaic, practically “back-to-back” with this one, but on the rear exterior wall of the shrine. The stream of passersby see St. Anthony holding fire, representing the word of God, as he preaches to an attentive group whose numbers include a penitent, children and the sick.

Of course, several more representations of the great Franciscan preacher abound in the shrine, beginning on one of the unusual glass window panels that form a facade wall several stories high.

These windows are primarily clear glass with unmistakable figures in outline, such as the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Anthony. Like sparkling jewels, random scattered sections of stained glass dot the clear glass, which acts as a skin, Father Ullrich explained. When you're outside, you feel inside, and vice versa.

Another purpose is to allow lots of daylight into the lobby, which was a real innovation when the shrine was built and opened in 1955. The white marble lobby, with its bright terrazzo floor, provides a truly warm sense of welcome. It makes for an easy transition from the hustle and bustle of the city outside.

People can walk to the end and find the desk for information, give for Mass offerings, or ask for a friar on duty. An open, wide staircase sweeps up one side toward the upstairs chapel used on weekends.

Midway at the mezzanine, there's a wooden statue of St. Anthony with Jesus, carved in high relief. The poor, along with a kneeling child, gaze expectantly at them. Father Ullrich speaks of the many touching notes and letters petitioners leave by the statue. “The depth of faith of those people is really moving,” he says. He carefully saves these notes as a sign of respect for all the wishes, hopes and dreams they represent.

Bauhaus Blessings

In ministry and externals, the shrine delivers this traditional care and concern in what was considered in 1955 an ultra-modern building. In fact, it still looks quite contemporary, designed by a German Franciscan brother, as it was, in the pure Bauhaus style. It's a radical departure from many of Boston's other stately churches, most of which were built in a variety of traditional styles, from English Gothic to Colonial.

Only a very few gentle curves, like the wall behind the main altar, join with the style's clean vertical lines and its perfect symmetry and proportion. Even the “rounded” marble columns in the lower church are made up of many vertical strips that angle carefully to form a circle.

The extensive marbles in whites, pinks and light beiges, the light-colored terrazzo floors, and the many mosaics capitalize on the style while at the same time conveying a convincing sense of warmth.

The upstairs chapel has contemporary designed stained-glass windows in vibrant primary colors. The morning sun really lights up the glassed wall behind the altar with the story of the Eucharist, from the dazzling host at the center, to images beginning with the Lamb of God above and the Last Supper below.

Clerestory windows one side surprised me with events from St. Anthony's life — among them, his preaching to fish and meeting St. Francis. The other side does the same for Francis, from preaching to the birds to the legend of his meeting with St. Dominic.

On the day I visited, shrine regulars, readily identified by their easy familiarity with the place, walked through the ever-busy marble pass-way that stretches from the lobby to the rear street.

They stopped to pray by a larger-than-life-size St. Anthony statue; many reached up to touch the image before making the sign of the cross. Other images, such as ones of the Infant of Prague, St. Jude, the Immaculate Heart and the guardian angels, like popular wayside shrines, draw the devoted to this annex and back into the lower chapel.

Over the last few years, the St. Anthony Shrine has become a full-service spiritual center. It offers counseling and spiritual-direction services, faith formation and major “Come Home” programs for alienated Catholics.

When the shrine was dedicated in 1955, it was counted the first major building constructed in Boston after World War II and the first major one in downtown during a recession.

Now, practically a stone's throw from the Freedom Trail and sites that inspired the American Revolution, this shrine continues to build a solid spiritual foundation and to lead a quiet spiritual revolution in the heart of Boston.

Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.