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Totus Tuus, Mary…the Mother of us all

“When the Pope John Paul II’s mother died, his father brought him to this spot, right in front of this painting and said, ‘Now, this is your mother.'”

Walking down the whitewashed halls of the 17th-century monastery an hour or so outside of Krakow, I could hear the familiar cadence of a mass, even though I couldn’t understand the words. I quietly entered the back of the baroque church with my guide, Lucas, who has been ferrying me across the Polish countryside, first to the home town of Saint Pope John II and now to the Polish pope’s favorite pilgrimage spot, Kalwaria Zebrzydowska.

Even though I knew Lucas would rather be outside having a cigarette, he could see how much I wanted to join the mass and led me—through the legendary corridors of the Friars Minor Observants hung with soot-darkened paintings of the Virgin and Baby Jesus and upteen saints I could not name— into a short, brightly lit passage stuffed with crucifixes meant for procession, decorated in silk flowers and ribbons, and piles of now-useless crutches given over by pilgrims who found the strength to walk after visiting this church.

As we turned the corner and the church opened up—scenes of heaven and angels in pink, blue and yellow on the ceiling and massive, ornate altar in black marble and gold—the mass was ending. Lucas reverently made the sign of the cross and led me along the side, by cool grey marble walls with alcoves filled with sculptures and chubby cherubs to a crowded side chapel.

“This is the Lady of Kalwaria,” he said pointing to a painting of the Virgin Mary with Jesus, both wearing royal crowns of red velvet and gold, clothed in blue garments alive with golden and bejeweled flowers. ”She is responsible for many miracles.”

Kalwaria Zebrzydowska

There was not an inch of space in the chapel between the children dressed in white gowns and flowered crowns who had just received first communion, their families, tourists, and pilgrims. The faithful were on their knees in prayer on the black and white checkered floor or jostling to get closer to the painting, to get a message through, like fans at a rock concert trying to get closer to the stage. It was hot and close.

The object of affection was this painting from the 1600s that reportedly wept in 1641 and has long been one of the most visited pilgrimage sites in Poland. For Saint Pope John Paul II, it was right up the street from his home town of Wadowice, and he would frequently come to this chapel and the surrounding forest to walk the miles of trails linking to small chapels.

“When the Pope’s mother died, his father brought him to this spot, right in front of this painting and said, ‘Now, this is your mother,’ said Lucas.

It is said from that day forward, Pope John Paul dedicated himself to Mary with the words that he would pronounce for a lifetime, Totus Tuus, “I belong entirely to you”

 

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Our Lady of Częstochowa

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It is said that this is a portrait of Mary, the Mother of God herself, painted by Saint Luke on a wooden table that Jesus built. It has hung in this church for more than 600 years.

August 26 is the feast day of Our Lady of Częstochowa, the Black Madonna of Poland.

For more than 600 years, her tranquil face, scarred by assaults by arrow and sword, has looked out over a pilgrim-filled church built in her honor, on a hill called Jasna Gora, not far from Krakow. She has been through battles and wars, handed off from emperors to kings and hidden away in catacombs. People have prayed for her help, walked on their knees in pilgrimage to see her, and left their crutches behind after being cured of their ailments. Hundreds of miracles have been credited to this miraculous image and Our Lady of Częstochowa’s intercession over centuries.

A contemporary rendition of Our Lady of Częstochowa by artist Janina Oleksy-Lew.
A contemporary rendition of Our Lady of Częstochowa by artist Janina Oleksy-Lew.

For Poles, she is everything. She was officially proclaimed Queen of Poland in 1656 by King Jan Kazierz, who consecrated the country to the protection of the Mother of God. She has since been revered as protectrice and a symbol of Polish nationalism and religious liberty. Most parishes in Poland have shrines dedicated to her.

There is a shrine to Our Lady of Częstochowa in just about every church in Poland.
There is a shrine to Our Lady of Częstochowa in just about every church in Poland.

But the story of this miraculous image begins long before that.

It is said that this is a portrait of Mary, the Mother of God herself. It was painted by Saint Luke on a wooden table that Jesus built when he was apprenticing to be a carpenter with Joseph.

This is just the very beginning of the 19” x 14” miraculous portrait’s life.

  • Some say it was hidden away for years after it was painted to survive the siege of Jerusalem, around AD 70.
  • Then, in 326, Helen, the mother of Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, traveled to Jerusalem to find the relic. She brought it back to Constantinople for her son, who built a church near his palace for it.
  • Stories are told of residents carrying the painting through the streets of Constantinople to successfully repel an attack by the Saracens.
The walls of the church at Jasna Gora are lined with rosaries, coral necklaces and mementos of prayers granted.
The walls of the church at Jasna Gora are lined with rosaries, jewelry, medals, and mementos of prayers granted.
  • Later, Emperor Izauryn ordered many holy objects to be burned in the empire. His very own wife, Irene, hid the painting in the palace and began a tradition of passing the painting down from empress to empress in the court of Constantine.
  •  Through intermarriage of Russian royalty with those of Constantinople and later with Polish royalty, the painting found its way to the Belzki Castle, where it remained for 500 years.
  •  During attack by Tartars on Prince Ladislaus’s fortress in 1392, an arrow soared through the chapel window and struck the painting in the throat.
  • The scars on her face were made by a sword during an attack by the Hussites, a Christian movement of the King of Bohemia, in 1430. (By the way, attempts were made by artists to retouch the scars, but they always reappeared.)
At Jasna Gora
At Jasna Gora

Prince Ladislaus wanted to keep the painting safe from repeated invasions. He stopped in Częstochowa on his way to his hometown, and the horses could not move the carriage from its place. Twice, he dreamed that the painting should remain on the spot, a hill called Jasna Gora, or Bright Hill. This happened on August 26, 1392, and brings us to where we are today.

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Children celebrating their first communion before the miraculous image of Our Lady of Częstochowa at Jasna Gora.

He built a chapel, a convent, and a cloister on the hill, entrusted the most pious monks to care for the painting.

More than 600 years later, the feast day of Our Lady of Częstochowa is still celebrated at Jasna Gora. As are the many miracles credited to her intercession.

Pope John Paul II held a very special devotion to the Virgin Mary.
Pope John Paul II held a very special devotion to the Virgin Mary.

 


There is also a National Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.


This is not exhaustive or entirely accurate history of the miraculous image at Jasna Gora as many sources seem to copy and/or contradict each other.  However, this post meant to give a sense of the journey and impact of this relic and what it means to the people of Poland.

My primary source is a book of miracles attributed to Our Lady’s intercession called “The Glories of Czestochowa and Jasna Gora” by Marian Press, along with stories  on the websites Roman Catholic Saints, Holy Spirit Interactive, and others.

Edgar Reyes and Our Lady of Guadalupe

I saw her from across the room. I recognized the colors first, then saw the form.

It was Our Lady of Guadalupe, practically glowing in reds, greens and yellows on the plain white wall of the art gallery. As I moved closer, her colors broke into a jumble of squares, pixelating before my eyes. Printed on a 3-foot-square paper, the colors danced as shapes, and I marveled at how they came together into her image just a few feet away.

Did others see the same thing as I did? What an interesting take on the Madonna in the modern world. Broken down into pixels. Religion challenged by modern society. Or was it about the recognition being  in the heart more than the eyes?

Artist Edgar Reyes and his take on Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Artist Edgar Reyes and his take on Our Lady of Guadalupe. Photo by Cheryl Nemazie.

That’s when I met the artist, Edgar Reyes. I soon found that Our Lady of Guadalupe had a very different meaning to him.

He was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, and migrated to the United States with his mother as a small child. He still remembers saying goodbye to his grandmother, whose house was covered with images of the Virgin Mary. He and his young mother knelt down before his grandmother so she could bless them for a safe journey, all the mothers in his life seemingly melding into one at that moment.

He got some help getting used to life in the States from an aunt in California (also named Lupe, by the way) and has overcome many hardships as an immigrant. Edgar is now an artist and teacher in the Baltimore/Washington, D.C. area. He carries a battered and well-traveled Guadalupe statue from the very town where Juan Diego first saw the Virgin Mary appear to him, bringing his cloak imprinted with her image to the bishop as proof. The iconic image is a touchstone to Reyes’ culture and an homage to the women who helped him get to where he is today.

Reyes has carried this statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe with him around the country.
Reyes has carried this statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe with him around the country. Photo by Cheryl Nemazie

 “No estoy yo aqui, que soy tu madre?”
(Am I not here, I who am your mother?)

I’ll let him speak in his own words about what Mary means to him:

“For me what she stands for is respecting women. It’s not so much the religious component of her, but it’s what she stands for… it is woman empowerment and women’s rights…men should respect women… they are a valuable part of our community. They are not just child bearers. They hold the key to success to a fruitful community.

She has always just been there for me. Guadalupe has guided my way through life indirectly and subconsciously.

I grew up religious, but I’m very cynical about the Catholic faith. The Virgin Mary has become a cultural icon for many Latinos. Many of us are unaware of the fact that she was used as a vehicle for the colonization of Mexico and converting many native people. Despite this fact Latinos proudly wear her on their belts, necklaces and even get her portrait tattooed.

I usually carry something in my wallet of her or relating to her. I just always have had something with her image on it. It is part of my culture. Guadalupe is a hybrid of Native American and Spanish beliefs.

To me she is mother earth. The giver of life.

I want her to be a mosaic here in Baltimore. I really want to be the first artist to put her up.”

 

 

Spirit of the Black Madonna del Tindari rises again in New York

There was no sign of the Black Madonna of Tindari statue that used to stand in this room, but the ancient spirit of Sicily rose again like the phoenix painted on the wall of this East Village bar anyway. Devotees and revelers of all ages gathered on her feast day September 8 in a revival of the celebration that anchored this immigrant community for more than 75 years.

In a small side room that used to serve as chapel for a statue,  wrought-iron chandeliers still hang from the ceiling. Sicilians young and old are huddled on wooden benches with pints of beer while a group of fresh-faced twentysomethings play traditional instruments that haven’t been heard in hundreds of years. Dancers stomp and twirl in ancient dances in honor of the Black Madonna while the same songs that have been sung in her honor for eons wake up the memories in the room.

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Sicilian immigrants brought their religious beliefs and practices with them from the Old World to this Manhattan neighborhood at the turn of the 20th century, especially their devotion to the Blessed Mother, particularly the Madonna del Tindari, the black Madonna of Sicily.

An Italian-American tradition that had begun in 1909 ended in 1987 after members of the Sicilian community on and around Manhattan’s East Thirteenth Street died or moved away. The chapel closed and the statue moved to a private home in New Jersey, where it still resides.

However, 12 years ago, Italian-American scholar Joseph Sciorra had an idea to resurrect the feast day gathering, with a modern twist.

The site of the chapel at 447 East 13th Street is now a bar called the Phoenix Bar. Dozens of Sicilians turned out for the revival.

Charlie Castrovinci (like Fidel and Leonardo, he says) used to come to this very spot to visit the Black Madonna when he was a child. He remembers when this neighborhood was home to 50,000 Sicilians.

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“My block had its own festival, except this block had two feasts of the black Madonna,” he said.

He remembers her being paraded through the streets, people pinning ribbons with money to her as donations and offerings, vendors selling sausage and Italian doughnuts filled with ricotta called zepplie (“My mom wouldn’t let me have those because she could make them at home.”), and a bandstand with music. He begins to sing strains of a song he remembers—Mama…—and Victorianne Capiello chimes in.

She came to the festival’s revival after doing research on her family history and discovering her ancestors came from areas of Sicily near the original shrine of the Madonna del Tindari.

“Every year my grandmother would climb the mountain on her knees and do her novenas and prayers,” she said.

She met Charles at a Sicilian meet up—their families it turns out are from the area of Sicily—and now they are friends.

“I am happy to be back and willing to share with these newcomers the greatness of the Black Madonna,” said Castrovinci.

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Leda Grasso, who was born in Catania, Sicily, is holding a Black Madonna del Tindari commemorative t-shirt from a number of years ago. It depicts one of the original flyers for the event from the early 20th century. Her mother also made the pilgrimage to Tindari.

“My mother went back to Sicily when I was 20. She said ‘My daughter is 20. Please get her a husband.’ I met him while she was there,” she said. “We have been together 40 years. We had three kids. Two are doctors and one is a psychologist.”

Cups of traditional Sicilian chocolate rice pudding are passed around. Beers are downed. The lights are low.

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Dancer Rita Fierro spins to the rhythm, dipping and turning around the other dancers as if they are ready for a rumble. They hop back and forth to the drums, hair flying, hands in the air snapping castanets, as the beat thrums faster and faster.

With her wavy brown hair and dark almond eyes, long flowing skirt and bare feet, swirling with castanets made of olive wood in her hands, Fierro looks like she could be dancing in the ancient streets of Pompeii. In fact, she later tells me, there is a mosaic in Pompeii that shows people doing this very same dance. The tamurriata is meant to generate a trance to reconnect with the spirit, to transcend the physical experience, like spinning Sufis.

It’s working. The rest of the women join in the dance. There is joy on their faces. And one wonders if the Black Madonna may appear after all.

The Black Madonna del Tindari: A Italian-American tradition lives on with a twist

For 78 years it happened on September 8.

festival photo from Facebook page

The streets of this Italian East Village neighborhood in New York City were strung with banners and lights and a replica of the black Madonna del Tindari was paraded through the neighborhood and brought to the window of a small chapel that couldn’t hold more than a dozen people at a time.

Sicilian immigrants brought their religious beliefs and practices with them from the Old World to this neighborhood at the turn of the 20th century, especially their devotion to the Blessed Mother, particularly the Madonna del Tindari, the black Madonna of Sicily.

An Italian-American tradition that had begun in 1909 ended in 1987 after members of the Sicilian community on and around Manhattan’s East Thirteenth Street died or moved away. The chapel closed and the statue moved to a private home in New Jersey, where it still resides.

However, 12 years ago, Italian-American scholar Joseph Sciorra, Director of Academic and Cultural Programs at the Calandra Italian American Institute at Queens College—and curator of the exhibition “Evviva La Madonaa Nera!: Italian American Devotion to the Black Madonna”—had an idea to resurrect the feast day gathering, with a modern twist.

The site of the chapel at 447 East 13th Street is now a bar called the Phoenix Bar.

“The bar is the former site of this chapel. Having discovered that information, I called people there in the name of the Black Madonna,” he said.

He did so in a rather playful way, calling it the Committee for the Resurrection for the Feast of the Black Madonna. And people came. Nothing was scheduled to happen. Nothing in the bar indicates that it was once a religious chapel. But people gathered. Practicing Catholics and atheists. Poets and artists.

“Italian-American culture is not something that is fixed. It’s something that be reimagined. That’s what this event tries to capture,” said Sciorra. “Whatever happens, happens.”

One year a group made chalk drawings. Some read poetry or sang or danced. One year an altar was spontaneously created outside of the bar.

“Someone created a banner of the Madonna that she brings every year,” Sciorra said. There is also a group of folk revival musicians who join every year. One of them is a bagpipe player.

This Tuesday, September 8, is the 12 anniversary of the gathering. Sciorra will be there at the bar, waiting to see what happens this year.

“It’s a reclamation of space. New York City is constantly changing. What was in one place yesterday is no longer there for a number of communities, especially immigrants,” said Sciorra. “A lot of that history doesn’t get written. Just being able to acknowledge it and landmark it through performance was very exciting.”

See you there?

Twelfth Annual Festa in Honor of the Black Madonna del Tinadari

festival photo from Facebook page

September 8, 6-8 pm.

The Phoenix Bar

447 East 13th Street, off of Avenue A

New York City

Photo: Feast for the Madonna del Tindari, East 13th Street, between Avenues A and First, New York City, September 7, 1915. Courtesy the Library of Congress.

Madonna in the Mountains

On a recent trip to Colorado, in an railroad town in the shadow of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains–right in the heart of the Rockies–I was lured off the main street and up the steps into a 100-year-old, brick building to find Paulette Brodeur painting in the hallway. She was putting the finishing touches on an expressionist painting of a jazz combo. She introduced herself as she waved her paintbrush full of bright blue paint around in the air.

Her galleries were filled with whimsical paintings of everything from wild horses and mountain landscapes to a poodle with the Eiffel Tower in styles echoing great names like Raoul Dufy and Pablo Picasso, all in bright, exuberant colors that echoed Paulette’s personality.

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I rounded the corner into one brightly lit room to find this painting on the wall. It not only struck me for its beauty, but it felt a little like home. It reminded me of paintings by Grace Hartigan, who once painted in the city in which I now park my boots. And it was inspired by a statue of Mary in the great Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, in the shadow of which I studied French during college. To be so far away from home and to find her smack dab in the middle Colorado was a treat. And Paulette was generous enough to let me share her with you.

This painting is part of a series inspired by Notre-Dame Cathedral, completed after Paulette visited the city in 2013.

You can see more of Paulette Brodeur’s artwork on her website, http://www.brodeurart.com. Her gallery space is in the process of moving, so you won’t find her at the top of the stairs anymore, but you can find her online.

Madonna in the carpool lane

Madonna Driving

The Mary Project is all about exploring what Mary means to people of all ages, nationalities, and religious leanings (or not) across the country. I am fascinated every day by who opens up when I mention Mary because it’s always a surprise what comes out of their mouths.

I recently came across this drawing and stopped in my tracks. I love how it brings the Madonna right into our lives today. What would the Madonna and Jesus look like if they lived right along side us —just down the street—instead of thousands of years ago in a land far, far away. Mary was a mom, after all, doing the best for her son. These musing on the Madonna doing mom things capture my imagination.

Here’s what the artist Rosie Ferne has to say about her work:

The Marys (there are two more in progress, one riding the subway and one on a bike with Jesus in one of those bike seats that attach to the back rack) are an idea grew out of a few things:

My feminist beliefs are important to me, and I think a lot about the issues facing women who want to have children during the same years that they are rising in whatever their career is, and how this is often seen as kind of a liability by employers, which is unfair because fatherhood doesn’t affect men the same way, and because SOMEONE has to continue the human species, and because motherhood is obviously tons of work but it’s not valued the same way as ‘work work.’

So I guess by drawing madonnas doing normal modern stuff, it’s kind of about the continuity of the mother-child relationship from ancient times to now, and about how there’s a kind of sacredness there, even though our surroundings and lifestyles have changed.

You can see all four of Rosie’s Madonna artworks here – http://www.rosie-ferne.squarespace.com/ and they will soon be available on her Etsy shop – https://www.etsy.com/shop/Rosieferne.

May is for Mary: A Crowning Fit for a Queen

O Mary! We crown thee with blossoms today, Queen of the Angels, Queen of the Mary…

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Eight-year-old Dominic McKenney waves at the two men riding a crane to the top of the golden Virgin Mary statue at the National Shrine Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Equipped in hard hats and smiling to the crowd, they lift a giant crown of silk flowers of red yellow and purple 100 feet in the air and set it on the head of the 25-foot-tall statue that looks over this Catholic mountain shrine devoted to the Mother of God.

“She is the mother of Jesus. She is the mother of everyone,” Dominic says.

Nem_150503_025353Today is a special day here and in Catholic centers around the world. It is the first Sunday in May, a month dedicated to Mary, and statues of all sizes are being crowned in similar ways–but most probably without the need of a crane. The crowd holds up cameras and phones to snap pictures of the men laying the crown on her head, squinting against the sun. They cheer and applaud when the flowers have been placed, silk streamers flowing down her back. A perfect fit.

Thousands gathered the crowning here at this replica of the Lourdes shrine in France, tucked amongst winding paths lined with azaleas bursting with purple blooms, and statues of the Blessed mother.

“For me it’s one of those holy moments that I want to witness,” says Celine Okoh of Gaithersburg. “One of the ways to adore Jesus and the Blessed Mary is to be here as they place the crown.”

Nem_150503_145540The month of May has been dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary since Medieval times, honoring her as an example and devotion has been especially emphasized by recent popes who raise her up as an example of how to love and grow ever closer to God.

“To imitate Mary is to be open to God’s surprises,” says Sister Louis-Marie, with a smile and a wink. “Do you know you said that? Pope John Paul II.”

The Mary Project Begins

Finally, The Mary Project begins. An idea that has been whispered in my ear for months, if not years. A multimedia project that explores what Mary, the Mother of God, means to ordinary people like you and me. We will be talking to folks, reading books, visiting grottos and gardens, taking pictures and videos, and bringing them all together in one place to find out the many ways Our Lady impacts the lives of those across America, and the world, today.

It begins in the month of May, Mary’s month, with the crowning of Our Lady’s statue at the National Shrine Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes in Emmitsburg, Maryland. There, for the first time, a 12-foot-long flower crown will be raised high into the air, on the top of this meditative mountain, and onto the head of a 25-foot-high golden statue of Mary.

Here is where our journey officially begins, as we not only tell your stories, but begin to discover our own.

Join us by signing up to receive updates on The Mary Project and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.