February 3, 2017

Marian pilgrimage of faith connects past with present

Pictured on Jan. 14 is the Our Lady of Monte Cassino Shrine near St. Meinrad. The church was dedicated in 1870, and is a frequent destination for pilgrims. (Photo by Katie Briedenbach)

Pictured on Jan. 14 is the Our Lady of Monte Cassino Shrine near St. Meinrad. The church was dedicated in 1870, and is a frequent destination for pilgrims. (Photo by Katie Briedenbach)

By Katie Breidenbach (Special to The Criterion)

ST. MEINRAD—Garrett Braun knew it was going to be a wet and cold January day, but the second-year seminarian had made a commitment. He was going to stick to it.

“I think our faith is really a discipline,” he said. “That means even when it’s hard.”

The rain had increased and was steadily falling. Braun, a member of St. John the Baptist Parish in Newburgh, Ind., in the Diocese of Evansville, donned a warm coat and met three of his fellow seminarians under a canopy at Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology. Rosaries in hand, the four set out on their pilgrimage of more than a mile.

“I was just trying to think about the intercession of Our Lady, and asking her to bless this time for the community,” Braun said.

The seminarians of St. Meinrad, who currently come from 27 dioceses, have made the same January pilgrimage for nearly 150 years. The procession started as a request for the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and has continued as a prayer of thanksgiving for what is widely believed to be a miracle.

The destination is a small sandstone church called the Our Lady of Monte Cassino Shrine, named after the famous Italian monastery founded by St. Benedict some 1,500 years ago. Situated atop a hill, the shrine was dedicated in 1870 to honor Mary under the title Our Lady of Monte Cassino.

Just over a year later, in December 1871, a smallpox epidemic swept through the area. Several townspeople lost their lives, and many seminarians fell ill. Gathering their strength, the students processed to the new shrine and began a novena to Our Lady of Monte Cassino. No new cases of the illness broke out from that day forward.

Today, the community annually commemorates this miraculous intercession, processing from the seminary to the shrine just as the students did in the 19th century.

“[The pilgrimage] is part of St. Meinrad—that connection that we have with all of those seminarians of the past,” summarized Dan Gilbert, a first‑year seminarian who is a member of St. Agnes Parish in Scottsbluff, Neb.

“It’s important to be grateful to God,” said Clark Lenz, a fifth-year seminarian from St. Rose of Lima Parish in the Diocese of Cheyenne, Wyo. “I think it’s a wonderful way to give thanks to God for what he did for this seminary.”

Making their way up the hill through dense fog, the four pilgrims arrived at the shrine wet and chilled. There, they were warmly greeted by a dozen fellow students and the vice rector of the seminary, Benedictine Father Tobias Colgan. All joined their prayers together for a Mass of thanksgiving.

“It’s been a long procession over the nearly 150 years. And it’s our turn for taking our place in the procession,” Father Tobias said in his homily. “But in God’s eternal present, his eternal now, our prayers join with those of all who have gone before us in this place in this very moment, this eternal present.”

The community is taking pains to preserve their beloved shrine for future pilgrims. Time and exposure had worn down the sandstone and made the foundation unstable. Some of the paintings that cover the walls and ceiling are marred with water damage.

“The wear and tear of the years takes its toll on everything, even a hallowed shrine like this one,” explained Father Tobias. “And so in our time, in our way, we do what we can to preserve and protect the places we honor, the places that are important to us.”

A generous benefactor stepped forward to initiate repairs and help save the shrine. During the summer, Monte Cassino received a new roof, the walls were reinforced, and the foundation was stabilized.

Other community members sponsored brick pavers that will be part of a new outdoor patio and prayer garden. Funds are also being raised to restore the interior murals, and to install a heating and air conditioning system.

“It’s been a prayerful place and a real place for Our Lady’s intercession for over 100 years,” Braun said, “so I think it’s very important that we preserve it and have it for future generations to come pray here.”

The seminarians concluded their prayer with a chorus of “Holy God We Praise Thy Name.” Exiting the small sandstone church, they slowly dispersed down the soggy hill to continue their priestly formation.

Less than an hour later, a local resident pulled up in a white sedan and disappeared through the shrine’s bright red doors. Re-emerging after several minutes, he explained why he drove all the way up the hill to pray at the Our Lady of Monte Cassino Shrine.

“It’s just real special,” he said.

(Katie Breidenbach is a freelance writer in Bloomington. For more information on the Monte Cassino Shrine, go to www.saintmeinrad.org/the-monastery/monte-cassino-shrine.)

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