Photo: Marian archives
In 1952, construction of the Shrine centered mainly on building the walls and framing the roof. By the end of 1953, the outside stone walls were finished.
Stanley Olender, one of the artisans, works on a carving that can still be seen inside the Shrine today. “I remember watching [the carvers] work, marveling at their skill,” said Br. Fred Wells, MIC.
By Dan Valenti (Feb 9, 2010)
As we celebrate the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy's 50th Anniversary Year in 2010, it's good to remember that it all began with a mission and Marian Helpers like you who were dedicated to that mission.
The original idea for what would become one of the most beautiful shrines in the world began with readers of what used to be called Marian Helpers Bulletin (now Marian Helper magazine).
More than 60 years ago, reader after reader of the Bulletin began contacting the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception with the suggestion that a shrine should be built specifically in thanksgiving for God's mercy. As it happened, this coincided with an internal need of the Marian community for a larger chapel on Eden Hill in Stockbridge, Mass.
Ground is Broken
In May 1950, after much prayer and discussion, the superiors of the Marians in Stockbridge decided to build a shrine in thanks for the goodness God had shown them in their mission of spreading God's mercy. The Marians broke ground that month for the new Shrine of The Divine Mercy.
As reported in the Marian archives, that May 5th day dawned tranquil and bright, the perfect foil for the great rumbles of a steam shovel, three trucks, and a bulldozer. The long-awaited digging of the foundation had finally begun. It took "five toilsome days" to dig out what the records call "a great, gaping hole."
Construction was laborious, and the limited means of the Congregation were practically exhausted to pay for the foundation work. As responsible stewards, the Marians only worked on the Shrine as funds permitted. Hence, the stop-and-go nature of construction over the decade of the 1950s.
In July 1950, the Bulletin noted, "However, we know that the merciful Jesus will not abandon us in the endeavor. ... This is best seen in the fact that Mr. Anthony Guerrieri — architect and builder, who has two priest-sons and two daughters in the convent — has come to aid us, despite the fact that our material means are wanting."
Father Joseph Luniewski, MIC — the provincial superior of the Stockbridge-based Marians who, with his council, decided to build the Shrine — was a vital champion of the project in the early days of construction. Although muscular dystrophy had confined him to his room, Fr. Luniewski would visit the construction site with the help of the novices to watch the progress of the building.
On June 6, 1951, Fr. Luniewski died, never to see "the project completed [that] he had begun in May 1950," according to the Bulletin, which added that "the impetus which he gave was carried on by the newly elected Provincial, the Very Rev. Joseph Sielski, MIC."
Each passing year added to the structure. In 1951, the foundation was done. In 1952, work centered mainly on building the walls and framing the roof. Roof slates were hammered into place in summer 1953. By the end of that year, the outside stone walls were finished, plumbing installed, heating and lighting put in, the floor laid, the bell tower completed, the bell hoisted into its permanent position, and interior finishing begun.
Marian Week to the Rescue
In 1954, the Marian Fathers conducted their first Marian Week in honor of Our Lady. The celebration led to a spike in donations from their lay associates, enabling the Marians to hire more construction workers for the Shrine. During the year, much of the intricate woodcarving was done, spilling into most of 1955. In all, the woodcarving took about three years.
Brother Fred Wells, MIC, arrived on Eden Hill as a postulant in 1955. He, along with other postulants and novices —"the young guys" pursuing a Marian vocation — were put to work on the building.
"We weren't skilled craftsmen or artisans," Br. Fred said with a laugh. "We were part of the fetch-and-carry group. We hauled bricks, mortar, tools, and bags of cement — whatever might be needed. We worked in the basement, what's now Memorial Hall, and in 1955, the chapel was little more than a shell. The inside was being worked on, especially with the woodcarving. I remember watching [the carvers] work, marveling at their skill."
Helpers Sacrifice for Shrine
After Br. Fred took his first vows on Feb. 2, 1957, he went to work in the office of the Marian Helpers Center on Eden Hill, located at the time where the Oblate Sisters now have their convent. He became a bookkeeper, put in that position by then Association of Marian Helpers' Director Fr. Francis Duda, MIC.
"Father Duda waited for me with open arms, because I had gone to business college," Br. Fred said. "As bookkeeper, I could see how our [lay] Marian associates were helping us. The envelopes would come in, and many contained only a single dollar bill. That was all many could afford. It was a true gift of faith."
Of the lay associates' help, Br. Fred said, "Father Duda used to take unopened mail to a group of six or seven lay helpers in [nearby] Housatonic. They were shut-ins, people who had no cars, people who for whatever reason couldn't leave the house. Father would get in his car, drive to their houses, and give them envelopes. They would open the mail and remove the money. Father Duda would return later in the day to collect the receipts. That was phenomenal that he would trust people that much, and you know, the people we worked with were such good people. We operated fully on trust."
Also, consider the contributions of these two men. The late Gelindo Dassatti of Pittsfield, Mass., and Richard Motarella of Lee, Mass., knew each other through a common friend, but they had more than that in common. Each was a Marian benefactor, helping to build the Shrine.
Gelindo, known to his friends as Gel, did so through financial contributions. He worked in a paper mill. "I supported the work along with my wife, Nora, because I knew the Shrine would be standing long after we were gone," Gel said. "It was important to provide for future generations."
Richard, too, wanted to be a part of the job — in his case, literally. Richard worked as a stone mason for several area contractors. When he learned of the Shrine project, he selected that job from among several offers.
"At the time [mid- to late-1950s], there was a construction boom in the Berkshires," he said. "It was after the war. There was lots of optimism. The country was in a 'building mood,' you could say."
Why did he choose to work on the Shrine? "Because that was the best work of [all the projects]. It was the work of God," he said. Richard helped build most of the exterior stonework, where to this day, the art of his craft can be seen.
Solemn Blessing and Dedication
Finally, after 10 years of painstaking construction, the Shrine was solemnly blessed and dedicated by Bishop Christopher J. Weldon of Springfield, Mass., on May 30, 1960. Thousands of lay friends, associates, and well wishers jammed Eden Hill for the dedication. (See plans for the Shrine's Golden Jubilee celebration of the dedication.)
In his homily, Bishop Weldon noted the support of the many benefactors who made the Shrine possible. He asked all to join him in "giving thanks to God for the many blessings received during the arduous years of construction. [This building] stands as a testimony of faith," Bishop Weldon said. "It will stand as an edifice testifying to the mercy of God, a spiritual structure that will bring the message of Divine Mercy to countless lives. We know this shrine is from God. No human effort could move so far, so long, and so beautifully of its own accord."
For the Marians' part, they trusted in God, and their benefactors — people like Gel and Richard — came through for them.
Today, as a consequence of this tremendous act of faith, America has on Eden Hill a fittingly beautiful edifice to honor Jesus, The Divine Mercy. Now, the Shrine is celebrating its 50 years of ministry to pilgrims throughout 2010 — a ministry that is built on the sacrifices of so many Marian Helpers through the years.
If you or members of your family helped the Marians build the Shrine, please send us your stories, which we may share online and in print during the Shrine's 50th Anniversary Year. Write: Association of Marian Helpers, Editorial Dept., Eden Hill, Stockbridge, MA 01263. Or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.