On May 13th, 1917 in the small town of Fatima, Portugal, three shepherd children witnessed the Blessed Virgin Mary as an apparition; they then saw her again on June 13th and July 13th in the same place. The children were given specific instruction from her to do penance and Acts of Reparations. During the course of those visits, according to the eldest child, the Blessed Virgin Mary confided in them three secrets. On August 13th, the children were jailed because of their stories and prevented from going to the place they saw her each month before; in addition, their jailers insisted that the children share the secrets, but the children refused. The children were eventually released, and again saw the Blessed Virgin Mary on August 15th, and asked permission to share the secrets with the doubters. The Blessed Virgin Mary promised for her last visit, on October 13th, she would present herself; and when that time came, in front of approximately 70,000 witnesses, the Blessed Virgin Mary performed the Miracle of the Sun. In 1941 two of those secrets were revealed, after being found in a written account by one of the children; however, the surviving child declined requests to reveal the third secret, but agreed to write it down and seal it in an envelope, to be opened in 1960, when the world would better be able to receive it.
In the mid-1950’s the Polish and Italian communities in the Niagara Falls region joined together to support the Barnabite Fathers, a missionary faction who had found their way to the area, to create the Our Lady of Fatima shrine in Lewiston, NY. At that time, the shrine began with one statue of Our Lady of Fatima, and later, in 1960, the shrine that exists today was founded.
Upon arriving, I went to the office as previously instructed when I had called, and found Cheryl. She was busy helping what seemed like 1 million people at the same time, but when she got to me and I told her who I was, she immediately said “OH!! Let me find Father for you!” and she whisked off. A few minutes later, Father Julio found my friend and I in the hustle and bustle of the other visitors.
Father Julio walked with us to a quieter spot outside, and the three of us began to walk the grounds as he told us the story of how the shrine came to be. A group of Tamils from Sri Lanka were there, and hosting their own mass. As it was letting out, we were surrounded by even more people, many of whom wanted to visit with Father Julio. We were soon joined by Father Richard, and the Sri Lankan priest (whose name I didn’t get). From the other visitors’ perspective, there were three priests and two guys in shorts and t-shirts with a lot of tattoos showing and shaved heads standing next to a Madonna statue–I’m fairly certain it was a rare site. Even more unexpectedly, they seem to regard us with some authority, because clearly we had the devoted attention of the priests. (In fact, later someone approached me and asked “On your website, it says…….” I think she was surprised to learn that I didn’t work there at all.)
We walked the grounds around the rosary pool, and visited the statues of the Apostles, and saints on the grounds. Once the mass let out, we entered the worship area and were shown around. The area exists within a half dome, intended to look like the globe, and light shines through any area that would be water on the globe, with the Our Lady of Fatima statue atop as though standing over the world. Just outside are the ‘side altars’ like one would typically find in a church, and a relics area, with a bone fragment of St. Anthony Maria Zaccaria (patron saint of the Barnabite Fathers) on display and a hand carved mural.
We walked and talked for a couple hours. Father Julio has an incredibly peaceful and humble way about him, and he seemed genuinely interested in our studies, and in how we came to the ideas we had about religions. As far as I’m concerned, the inspiration that comes from being in a holy place, and allowing everyone to be whom they truly are for the sake of learning from one another can’t be matched. Apparently we all felt the same, because Father Julio then invited us to dinner with the other priests and nun in the seminary.
We were stunned. How could it even be a possibility to say no to that kind of invitation?? We were tired from driving all across Western NY state, and hiking up and down a ridiculously unwalkable valley (alright, that’s an exaggeration, but seriously, I’m not in great shape), but how often do people get invited into the seminary to have dinner at the family table?
We walked back from the shrine through the empty parking lot that just an hour earlier looked like the lot for the Mall of America, and down a driveway to the seminary. The three of us walked in, and we were introduced to Father Joe, Father Peter, Sister Ann and Father Richard, and our unlikely bunch sat down to dinner. We chatted for a while about a lot of different topics and covered everything from our tattoos, to Buddhism and Native American religious traditions, Catholic burial rights, and even a bit about our mutual friend Peter Veitch (I assure you, it was all positive from each side of the table!).
As it was getting late, we were truly getting tired from the day’s events, and still had another hour and a half to drive before getting home. We all stood, bowed our heads and said a short prayer. Before we were to leave, we were asked if it would be okay that Father Julio prayed over us and gave us his blessing. We all went in to the private chapel of the seminary where the group begins and ends each day with prayer and meditation. We knelt while Father Julio said a blessing with the other priests. Out of all the places we’ve gone, and the blessings and experiences we’ve had, my mom would be the most pleased with this one!
We said our goodbyes and thanked them for their hospitality and generosity. It was incredibly inspiring to be among so many people of faith who were open minded enough to sit and talk openly with us, and refer to us as friends and make sure we knew we were always welcome. We began the weary last leg of our trip around Western NY and started home. The entire drive was spent a bit in awe and gratitude. The goal of this project has been to be sure that we’re constantly expanding who we are as people, and to ensure that through education and experience we are continuing to grow. There’s been a lot of things we’ve done that has far exceeded our expectations on how we’d be received, and I’m proud to write here that this visit was among them. I can’t wait to go back!
*This post previously appeared on ExploringTheBurnedOverDistrict.com