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Philadelphia shrine to the Miraculous Medal keeps Marian devotion alive


John Burger - published on 11/27/20

A place “where heaven touches earth,” church has been destination for those seeking intercession.

Does your parish have a weekly prayer to Mary on Mondays known as the Perpetual Novena? If it does, you might be interested to know that the tradition began in Philadelphia.

November 27 is the feast of the Miraculous Medal. On this day in 1830, the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to St. Catherine Labouré, then a novice with the Daughters of Charity in Paris, France. In the vision, St. Catherine saw Mary standing on a globe with shafts of light streaming from her hands and the words, “O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee,” surrounding the image.

She also saw a capital “M” with a cross above it and two hearts below. The young sister seemed to hear a voice telling her to have what she saw struck as a medal, along with a promise that whoever wears the medal would have Mary’s protection and intercession. The first 1,500 of these “Miraculous Medals” were distributed in 1832. A diocesan tribunal approved Catherine’s revelations in 1836.

Fast forward to 1865 in Pennsylvania, a state that played a major role in the American Civil War. The union had been through hell, but preserved. It was time to rebuild.

At least one religious community, the Congregation of the Mission, founded in France by St. Vincent de Paul, was  experiencing a staggering increase in vocations. Known as the Vincentians, they bought a plot of land in the Germantown section of Philadelphia to construct a seminary. The main part of the institution was finished in 1872, and then work on a chapel for priests, brothers and seminarians was begun. 

In 1915, in the early days of yet another war, the Vincentians founded the Central Association of the Miraculous Medal. Thanks in part to the efforts of the director, Fr. Joseph A. Skelly, devotion to the Miraculous Medal skyrocketed throughout the United States. Fr. Skelly in turn commissioned the establishment of a shrine to Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal in the Romanesque seminary chapel. 

Fr. Skelly then went on to establish the Perpetual Novena to Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal. The Monday Novena began on Monday, December 8, 1930, the feast of the Immaculate Conception. It became so popular that during the Second World War, some 15,000 people visited this shrine each Monday. 

As America — and the world — now seem to be engaged in a different kind of war, against an invisible virus, the Shrine of the Miraculous Medal would be a natural destination for pilgrims praying for an end to the pandemic. Visitors today will find a Romanesque church filled with murals of the Annunciation, Immaculate Conception and Nativity by the celebrated artist Virgilio Tojetti, painted in the 1890s. Surrounding the central shrine to Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal are seven stained-glass windows portraying events from the life of Mary, from her birth to her coronation.

A chair on display is a replica of the one the Blessed Mother sat in when she appeared to St. Catherine. Next to it is a relic from the original chair. 

Downstairs there are mini-shrines to Our Lady of Guadalupe, Our Lady of Vailankanni, and Our Lady of FIAT.

If you’re there at the right time, you might hear the 47-bell carillon in the shrine’s 125-foot bell tower, which is topped by a 14-foot statue of Mary Immaculate. 

“The shrine is a place where heaven touches earth,” Vincentian Fr. Michael Carroll, shrine director, recently wrote. “It is a place where people experience stillness, peace of mind, and serenity of soul. It’s a place where our Blessed Mother is always present, always listening, always touching souls.”

For information about visiting, especially concerning COVID-19 restrictions, check out the shrine’s website.

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