By Tom Holmes
Outside St. Bernardine Catholic Church stands a woman. Two sheep and three children kneel before her. Colorful flowers flank a grotto that surrounds her on all sides. She is Our Lady of Fatima, a statue erected at St. Bernardine's in 1950. A reader asked the Review to provide some background. Here's what we learned:
Our Lady of Fatima, according to Catholic legend, appeared in a vision to three young children, represented by the kneeling statues, on May 13, 1917 near a little town in Portugal named Fatima. One of the children, named Lucia, described Jesus' mother, Mary, who appeared to them, as "a lady dressed in white, shining brighter than the sun, giving out rays of clear and intense light," according to a Washington Post newspaper account.
As word got out that the children had experienced several visitations, crowds began to gather near Fatima on the 13th day of each successive month until a crowd of 70,000 gathered on Oct. 13, 1917. What they witnessed came to be known in the Catholic Church as the "Miracle of the Sun."
A Lisbon newspaper reported that "the sun trembled, made sudden incredible movements outside all cosmic laws and 'danced' according to the typical expression of the people."
At St. Bernardine, the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima was erected on July 9, 1950, after members of the St. Vincent de Paul Society visited the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Rosary of Fatima in Madison, Wisconsin.
Inspired, they returned to St. Bernardine, gathering support from the rest of the parishioners to erect their own shrine to the Holy Mother. In less than a year, contributions rose to a total of approximately $4,000 and the shrine was installed and still stands today.
St. Bernardine declined to comment on the shrine.
But Carol Good, a Forest Park resident who plants and waters the flowers there, said the statue is made of tufa, a kind of limestone.
Over the course of more than 20 years, Good said, the statue has been painted three times and along the way, flower pots, lights and a honey locust tree have been added to the site. Calling herself a "crazy gardener," Good has been caring for the grotto since the early 1990s because she loves gardening and "likes everything to be beautiful."
Occasionally people walking by will stop, kneel before the statue and pray. Good sometimes sees people stop at the curb and, while the car engine idles, spend a few moments there sitting in their cars.
Julia Doloszycki, a longtime St. Bernardine member, said she has often seen semi drivers park their rigs at the curb after unloading at Ferrara Candy Co. across the street and pray at the foot of the statue.
Doloszycki noted that devotion to Our Lady of Fatima seems to be especially strong among people who grew up in countries like Mexico and the Philippines, which were former colonies of Spain.
Angelita Ramirez, a Forest Park resident who has lived in the village for 20 years, knows the history of Our Lady of Fatima, but what is more important to her is the personal relationship she has with the mother of Jesus, whom she calls "Mama Mary."
"Whenever I have problems," Ramirez explained, "I pray to Jesus but basically I talk to the Blessed Mother. Even when I have little problems, I go to her and say, 'Would you open my eyes?'"
In 2012 Ramirez went on a pilgrimage to Fatima in Portugal. During the trip, she had experiences that convinced her the mother of Jesus was with her.
"I looked up at the sun," she recalled, "and it was like, oh my God, am I imagining it, because the sun was so bright but it didn't bother my eyes. I was staring at it, and it seemed like it was pulsating. I got goose bumps. I felt that [Mary] was there."
Ramirez partially attributes her devotion to growing up in the Philippines right after World War II. She attended Catholic schools from kindergarten straight through college.
"Don't forget," she said, "I grew up in the Philippines which even now is 80 percent Catholic. When I go to church in the Philippines, every single Mass is packed. Especially if I'm late, I will have to stand by a pew.
"Here in my parish [St. Luke's River Forest]," she lamented, "that is not true."
When asked about the many flowers at the grotto or at altars to Mary, Ramirez searched for the right words. "Appreciation" wasn't quite right. "Respect" did not convey her meaning either. Finally she settled on the word "love."
"We put flowers by the statue," she said, "out of love for the Blessed Mother."