Catholic church a treasure trove of holy sites


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With a copper spire that soars nearly 300 feet skyward, this French Gothic cathedral is an architectural wonder. The impressive 45,000 square-foot-edifice — featuring 23 altars, elaborate hand-carved wooden decorations and German-imported stained-glass windows — could be one of the great churches of Europe.   

It’s not. It’s the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark.  

The New Jersey showpiece is one of hundreds of intriguing holy sites around the country featured in the recently published, “Monuments, Marvels and Miracles: A Traveler’s Guide to Catholic America,” (Our Sunday Visitor, 2021).

Americans who want to explore the monuments of Catholicism need not travel overseas to embark on a pilgrimage; they can just grab the car keys, said author Marion Amberg.

“The purpose of this book was to get people on the road to holy sites right here at home. You don’t have to go to Rome,” she said. 

Amberg, a Santa Fe, New Mexico-based travel writer who grew up Catholic, hopes to offer believers a new way to explore America’s Catholic gems — more than 500 of them — which she collected and organized according to region.  

Among her personal favorites, she said, is Assumption Chapel in Cold Spring, Minnesota, also called the Grasshopper Chapel. The chapel was constructed in 1877 at the height of the three-year locust plague that was destroying the wheat fields in the Midwest. Father Leo Winter, a newly ordained minister at the time, encouraged people to pray to the Virgin Mary and asked settlers to build a frame chapel honoring “Maria Hilf” which means Mary’s Help, to avert the plague.

“Days after it was dedicated, the grasshoppers disappeared and never returned,” Amberg said in a recent interview with The Record, which is part of the USA TODAY Network.   

During her 13 months of research for this project, she developed a new appreciation for prayer when she discovered that three parishes — in Colwich, Kansas; Windthorst, Texas; and Atlanta — had prayed the rosary every day during World War II. In each one, every member who was serving in the military returned home safely, Amberg said. “It demonstrates the power of prayer,” she said. 

One of the most inspiring sites, she said, is the Four Chaplains Monument in Kearny, New Jersey. The memorial pays homage to the clerics who gave away their life vests to four sailors on the SS Dorchester when the ship was torpedoed by a German U-boat in 1943.

“It makes you wonder, ‘would I have had the guts and faith to do what they did?'” she said, adding that the men gave their lives so the others could live. “You have a Methodist, (George Fox) a rabbi (Alexander Goode), a Dutch Reformed minister (Clark Poling), and a Catholic priest (John Washington). Those four guys got along and respected each other. I love that. The sculpture shows the four chaplains praying in their respective traditions.”  

Of the 904 men aboard the ship, only 230 survived. Eyewitnesses recall that the last anyone saw of the chaplains was that they stood against the ship’s railing, arms linked and praying as they went down with the ship.  

Many of the sites have awe inspiring stories behind them.

When a fire destroyed the interior of St. Anthony of Padua Church in Jersey City, New Jersey, in 1895, all that was left behind was a large wooden crucifix that had been hanging above the main alter. The “miraculous crucifix” has since been revered by generations of parishioners and is now enshrined in a side altar of the church.

Couples struggling with fertility issues often visit the National Shrine of St. Gerard Majella at St. Lucy’s Church in Newark for a blessing from Saint Gerard, the patron of unborn children, for a miracle baby. And women who have difficult pregnancies seek relief with “holy hankies” handkerchiefs touched to a relic of Saint Gerard. Murals in the shrine chapel depict the saint’s life in this historic church built by Italians and Sicilians in the 1920s.  

The book also contains Catholic sites around the nation that are picturesque as well as oddities, including the Christ of the Abyss, a nearly 9-foot-tall, two-ton bronze statute of Jesus that was submerged in 25 feet of water at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo, Florida. The sculpture draws scuba divers and snorkelers who come to explore it close up.

The Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut, is a lavish Nativity scene dating back to the 18th century that is believed to have been a gift to the King of Sardinia for his coronation in 1720. The collection, located in a monastery of Benedictine nuns, includes 68 hand carved figures who are dressed in typical New England garb. 

Built to resemble the cloisters of medieval Europe, The Cloisters in Manhattan is a picturesque museum overlooking the Hudson River that will transport visitors back to the middle ages. A branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it contains medieval gardens, and several chapels along with an impressive collection of over 5,000 works of art and architecture. 

America’s oldest church is French: St Joan of Arc Chapel in Milwaukee dates back to the 15th century, and was located in Chasse, France. According to the legend, Saint Joan of Arc visited and prayed at the altar in 1429 before heading to war. After World War I, an architect discovered the chapel and transferred it to New York, where it was purchased by a railroad baron’s daughter who lived in a French chateau on Long Island. When a 1962 fire gutted the chateau but miraculously spared the chapel, the new owners donated the gem to Marquette University in Milwaukee. 

The book was initially scheduled to be published in 2020, but then the pandemic hit, and it had to be pushed back, Amberg said. “The timing was providential because people are ready to have a new adventure but don’t want to go to Europe yet. This book is taking them on adventures all across America.”

Those who opt to remain home can learn a lot about Catholicism just from reading the book, or they can virtually explore the sites because each entry has a link to a website, she said. 

Amberg, who loves traveling, said she often combines pilgrimage with her family vacations. “Visiting churches allows us to see the American melting pot,” she said. ” We can learn the faith stories of all the various cultures that make up our nation.” 

America, she tells readers in the introduction of her book, “has faith all around us.” 

It can be found, she says, “in grand cathedrals and tiny chapels, in miracle shrines and underwater statutes and even in blessed dirt.”

Deena Yellin covers religion for NorthJersey.com. Email: yellin@northjersey.com | Twitter: @deenayellin 





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