The novena was so popular that weekly attendance at a church in Chicago may have set a world record.
Over the centuries many pious customs have been developed to enter more deeply into the sorrowful heart of Mary. One such custom was instituted by the Servite Order, a group founded by the “Seven Holy Founders” in 1233. From the very beginning they were devoted to Our Lady of Sorrows and passed on that tradition to subsequent generations of priests and religious.
The Servites eventually made their way to the United States and founded a parish in Chicago in 1874. Several decades later in 1937 Archbishop Mundelein approved a “Perpetual Novena in honor of Our Sorrowful Mother.” According to a pamphlet describing its history, “The first Novena services were held on Friday, January 8, 1937. They consisted of the Via Matris (stations of the Seven Sorrows of Mary), six prayers culled from the ancient Servite Manual, two hymns to Our Blessed Mother, the Memorare, and Benediction of the Most Blessed Sacrament.”
Furthermore, “One year after His Eminence granted the Imprimatur, 73,000 people were making the Novena at 38 services each Friday in Our Lady of Sorrows Church. This phenomenal weekly attendance at one church constituted a world record.” It is believed that during the novena’s peak it spread to over 2,300 parishes.
To honor the parish’s history and devotion, in 1956 Pope Pius XII raised the parish to the level of a basilica and wrote a special letter to them, praising the parish for their dedication to the Sorrowful Mother.
First and most important church in America dedicated to Our Lady of Sorrows is to be found in the teeming city of Chicago. The Order of Servants of Mary established this place of devotion in the year 1874. In the beginning of this century they built a spacious Church with a seating capacity of approximately 3,000 people, patterned after a style of architecture identified with the Renaissance. Wonderful are the graceful towers rising at each side of the facade of the Church. The marble of the Main Altar was imported from famed Carrara and is topped by a picture of the Sorrowful Mother … What is most worthy of praise is the fact that this Church is an outstanding place of devotion in America, where the Sorrowful Virgin is venerated. From this Shrine, the devotion in the form of the “Novena to Our Sorrowful Mother” spread everywhere like an inundating river.
It is a beautiful devotion, one where the faithful are led to accompany Mary on Good Friday and feel her anguish as her son was nailed to the cross.