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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.


Mary Our Queen

Driving home from work today, I had mind to stop in to the cathedral to chat with Mary. It’s a modern cathedral built in the 1950s, a big place made of smooth stone where you have to walk a city block to get from the front door all the way to the back, to the Mary Chapel . I thought about slipping in a side entrance so I didn’t have to walk so far, but when I pulled up to the church, all of the front doors were wide open.

These are enormous and heavy brass doors that I have never seen propped open, even before mass or during special holy days. When I approached, cool air poured out, scented with incense. Inside, it was dark except for the light filtering through the narrow, four-story stained glass windows.

And I was all alone. Not a soul was in this massive cathedral. Right after work. On a busy thoroughfare. In the middle of a major city on the East Coast. Just me.


It made me think of a visit to Poland last spring. Every church I ducked into–no matter the day of the week or the time of day–was full to spilling over with people of all ages.  Some had scored seats, others leaned against the walls, folks came in late and other slipped out early. I stopped into enough churches mid-mass to cobble together a whole mass during my week of traveling.

Yet here I was in this massive cathedral–the place where special funerals are held for police officers and fire fighters and revered sports figures, where the archbishop leads Christmas mass to a packed house–and I was all alone with the doors wide open.

Is this what it’s like being Catholic in America? I define my very ancestry–Polish, Lithuanian, Italian, and Irish–by Catholicsm. Yet I understand now why so many churches are consolidating and closing. You must have people to have a church.

I found the Mary Chapel so quiet in this stone fortress that my ears rang. The silence stayed with me as I  traversed the length of the long and quiet church again towards the exit, towards the light spilling through the open doors and into the church.


Before stepping back into the sunlight, Mary met me one more time in the form of a statue at the door. She had wreath of flowers on her head and a reassuring smile on her face.


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.”



A small gift

My goal with The Mary Project is to share the stories of many people–Catholic or not, religious or not, born here or there–and how they experience Mary in their lives. Each day, I’m bowled over by the power of this project and how Mary manifests in my life–and in the lives of others.

I offer this as Exhibit A:


Last week, my neighbor and her boyfriend came to my house to carpool to a polka Christmas dance party. She loves to dance, he’s Slovenian, I’m part Polish. It was a guaranteed good time.

They had just been traveling through the Balkans and handed me a small package when they walked through the door.

“It’s just a little something,” she said. “Do you know Medjugorje?”

My face lit up. What? Of course, I know Medjugorje. It’s a place in the craggy hills of Bosnia where the Virgin Mary appears. They say the sun spins, rose petals fall from the sky, and crosses turn to gold around people’s necks. It has long been on my pilgrimage list.

“Yes, I know Medjugorje. I’ve always want to visit,” I say, as I look around my living room and wonder if they’ve noticed yet.

A white porcelain Mary statue sits on the fireplace mantle with the crumbling Polish lithograph of Mary with angels, a card from the Shrine of Saint Anne de Beaupre (Mary’s mother). A 3-foot tall plaster statue stands in the corner.

They’ve never been in my house before. They don’t know I collect Mary souvenirs from around the world. And I’ve never talked to them about Mary or The Mary Project.

The small paper package is printed with a blue drawing of Mary. Inside is  a small rosary bracelet, each bead depicting Mary and the Divine Mercy (I’ll get into that another day, but suffice it say that Pope Francis just announced this as a year of mercy, and just a few months ago I visited the very place  in Poland that this image was revealed to Saint Faustina.)

It was beautiful and delicate and sweet with two little crosses cinching the ties. I held the weight of it in my hand and marveled at the gift. Of all things they could have brought me from this part of the world, they brought me the thing that meant the most–and they had no idea.

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.

mary and jesus 2

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.