By Fr. Steve Shafran, SDB
Don Bosco had two very important women in his life: his earthly mother, Mamma Margaret, the heart of the Preventive System, and his heavenly mother, Mary Help of Christians, the heart of his work with the young, the poor, and the founding of the Congregation. A few years after his priestly ordination and the fragile beginning of his work with poor boys that would become the Oratory, our beloved founder had a follow-up to his dream at nine.
"On the second Sunday of that year (1844) that I was to share with my young boys that the Oratory would be relocated to Valdocco. But the uncertainty of the location, the funds, and the personnel left me really without any idea of what to do. The night before I went to bed with a heavy heart. During the night I had a new dream, that seemed to be a continuation of the one I had the first time at Becchi, when I was around nine years old...
...I wanted to leave, because it was time to celebrate Holy Mass, but the shepherdess invited me to look further. Looking, I saw a field, where potatoes, cabbage, beets, lettuce and many other seeds had been sown. – Look another time, she told me. And I looked again, and I saw a large magnificent Church. An orchestra, instrumental and vocal music all invited me to chant the Mass. In the interior of that Church was a white band high up, in which in large letters it was written: 'HIC DOMUS MEA, INDE GLORIA MEA.'"
We know now, over 180 years later, that that dream became a reality with the eventual construction of the Basilica of Mary Help of Christians in 1865. The seeds are all there: love for the Eucharist, devotion to Mary and St. Joseph, the birthplace of the Oratory (Valdocco on the periphery of Turin with the poor and outcast), Mary Mazzarello and the Salesian Sisters with outreach to young women, and Domenic Savio the representative of the fruit of Don Bosco’s spirituality and educational approach with holiness as the goal.
Almost 100 years after Don Bosco’s dream about the basilica, and with our province founded 50 years earlier, the first Salesians arrived in the Stony Point/West Haverstraw area in North Rockland County, NY in 1947. The objective of the new mission, at that time in a very rural area surrounded by farms, orchards, and Revolutionary War-era history, started another dream, and seeds were planted for our province. The idea of promoting devotion to Mary Help of Christians with a shrine was there from the beginning as realized just five years later with the Marian year and canonizations of Mother Mazzarello and Domenic Savio. It was the construction of an outdoor altar dedicated to Mary Help of Christians as the centerpiece of the new work. The bas-relief in marble has the Salesian Family central with Don Bosco, Mother Mazzarello, Domenic Savio and Laura Vicuña prominently positioned above the Tabernacle with the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. In a way, it's our recollection of Don Bosco’s dream of the two columns that took place in the spring of 1862.
The property and work gradually experienced ministerial transitions, always adapting to the needs of the province, the young, and the local church. An open-air outdoor pavilion became the foundation of devotion to Jesus, Mary, and Don Bosco with religious services, events, and pilgrimages. Buildings were built to educate and form young people responding to the call of becoming Salesian Brothers and priests. These would gradually transform into the Don Bosco Retreat and Youth Center, especially with the addition of the wing housing retreat accommodations.
The Marian Shrine has had a number of incarnations of ministry and outreach through the years. These have included school, camp, and Children of Mary, along with a gift shop and bookstore. There is also care for elderly Salesians, first with Blue Gates and now with the addition to the residence, as well as an open gym and the expansive manicured acreage. Our grounds are perfect for walks, reflection, and prayer that showcases memorials to Our Lady of Lourdes, Fatima, and (soon) Guadalupe, along with the Stations of the Cross and Mysteries of the Rosary, crowned with the 48-foot-high bronze statue of Our Lady of the Rosary.
In a variety of ways, the Marian Shrine is the "spiritual heart of the province" and our Salesian Family. For many years, the Salesian priests and Brothers have experienced their annual retreat here. There has been a wide range of Salesian Family events that have found the Marian Shrine as host: Salesian conferences, spirituality and Marian days, leadership workshops, chapters, and youth leadership retreats. We've also celebrated anniversaries, ordinations, and professions, as well as being an important Marian "holy ground" that has recently been chosen as a site for the Holy Doors and Cardinal Dolan’s favorite place to ask for special graces as he did during the experience of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Every Salesian ministry is important and valued. Yet I have come to a better understanding through lived experience that miracles do take place here, that Mary Help of Christians is really present, and that this truly is "a piece of Heaven on earth." Our Salesian community, Cooperators, staff, and volunteers invite everyone in the Salesian Family to rediscover the Marian Shrine as a "spiritual heart" and resource for all. We welcome you with open arms, joy, and Salesian hospitality and hope that the renovations of the Shrine Chapel and the offerings of new events and retreats will have our heart beating stronger for many years to come.
Explore and learn more on the Marian Shrine's website.
Additionally, learn how to buy tickets and place an ad in the program for the first Annual Marian Shrine Spring Gala and Animas Awards on Wednesday, May 3, at 6:00 pm ET.