Tag Archives: mother

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”



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.

Feast of the Immaculate Conception – December 8

On the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception…

Fresco of Virgin Mary in Cathedral of Córdoba, Spain
Fresco of Virgin Mary in Cathedral of Córdoba, Spain


Today is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. What does that mean? According to Pope Pius IX, Mary was given grace to be sinless at the instant of her conception:

“The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin.” (Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus, 1854)

Quote: Hillary Coniglio

Hillary Coniglio at 12th annual festa of the Madonna del Tinadari, September 8, 2015
Hillary Coniglio raises her castanets in an ancient Italian worship dance at the Twelfth Annual Festa of the Madonna del Tinadari in New York. Photo © Cheryl Nemazie.

“I think [Mary] is inspirational to Italian families. She is like the matriarch archetype of the Italian mother. She watches out for everyone, and protects and guides them.”    

—Hillary Coniglio

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.


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.


“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.


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.


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.