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Fatima Shrine readies for popular Festival of Lights

  YOUNGSTOWN - Soon thousands of tiny lights will illuminate the dark rural skies at Our Lady of Fatima Shrine, 1023 Swann Road, paying homage to the spiritual aspect of the upcoming Christmas holy days and drawing hundreds of spectators.

   The Barnabite Fathers are readying for their annual Festival of Lights, which begins Nov. 18 and runs from 5 to 9 p.m. each day through Jan. 6. Festival admission is free.

     The shrine also is open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. each day. Founded in 1954, the shrine grounds encompass 15 acres of statues, gardens, walkways, peaceful spots to sit and reflect, and buildings, with the basilica, itself, as the crowning jewel.

   The domed structure mimics a globe and is covered with two layers of glass and Plexiglas, with a contour of the Northern Hemisphere. Sixty-three steps lead to the top of the dome, where a 13-foot, 10-ton granite statue of Our Lady of Fatima stands. From the top of the dome, visitors can see the entire shrine grounds and surrounding countryside.  

     Masses, Confessions, Rosaries and Benedictions and Blessed Sacrament adorations are held in the shrine.

    This year is a special one for the shrine, marking the 100th anniversary of the reported sightings of Mary, Our Lady of Fatima, as she appeared to three young shepherd children six times between May 13 and October 13, 1917 in Fatima, Portugal.

    The local celebration began with a Solemn Opening Mass with Most Rev. Richard J. Malone, Bishop of Buffalo, on May 13. The shrine’s new bronze statues of the three young shepherd children were also dedicated that day and will be highlighted during this year’s Festival of Lights, according to Rev. Giulio Ciavaglia<cq>. He helped found the festival more than 25 years ago and continues to design the lighted displays.

      The festival features a self-guided tour of the grounds, but pamphlets are available at the site which give brief descriptions of a number of the Christian symbols featured that have been designed by Father Ciavaglia. They include: a towering “Monstrance,” a sacred vessel used by Catholics to show the Eucharist during public adoration; the “Tree of Jesse,” which illustrates the genealogy of Jesus Christ, accompanied by a detailed explanation; and 20, 8-foot, lit panels honoring the “Mysteries of the Rosary,” reflecting the art of many centuries, cultures and styles, among many, many other lit displays.

    Art was a first love of Father Ciavaglia’s, echoed in his life’s works and philosophy.

    His art and his calling to be a priest were both encouraged by his late mother, Lucia, a member of Sacred Heart parish in Niagara Falls and it still brings tears to his eyes to recall her gentle support the day he told her he was thinking of entering the seminary instead of art school. His mother was one of the many laypersons involved in helping turn farmland donated by the Ciurczak family into a Barnabite seminary/residence and pilgrim center.

     Father Ciavaglia recently took some time to walk through the grounds and highlight the histories of the shrine and its Festival of Lights. Interwoven is the story of his own journey from art student to the priesthood, recalling his ordination into this nearly 500-year-old Italian order a half-century ago.  

Q: How did this idea for a Festival of Lights come to you?
A: I had been here, at the shrine, then was assigned to a parish outside of Hamilton, Ontario. I went to a mall there and was looking down from the second floor onto a scene with Santa and his throne and all of the kids and their parents and I asked, ‘Where’s Jesus?’ So, I started making a Nativity scene for our church and each year I’d make a new one -- all homemade.

  When I came back here to the shrine, I was in charge of the cafeteria and in the winter it was so quiet - no one was around. So, I started with a Nativity scene and people liked it and I’d add a new statue each year, with a spotlight on them - this was all inside the shrine.

   Then we started with outside lights, with the Nativity, first. I love the Nativity. Italians are very devoted to Christmas and we’d always have the Nativity set out at home. You could give me the middle name of ‘Nativity’ and I’d be alright with that. (laugh)  

Q: I understand you have a studio on the shrine grounds where you design each year’s new feature. Can you tell us about it?

A: I have two studios - one for stained glass and the other is where I do my projects. We call them the Parable Studios, because Jesus used parables to tell stories, just like I use my artwork to make symbols to tell a story. Our artwork shows people in a visible way, in an artistic way, the work that Jesus does.

   Not too many people get inside my studio. It’s sacred.

 Q: How many people work on the Festival of Lights features?

A: Sometimes I get our employees to help or we get volunteers, especially if we need help with extra lighting.

   We choose a theme each year and I sketch a design of what I want and I work with Brian Brant, the head of maintenance here. Then I make him a bigger drawing, a pattern to use. He likes to do the ironwork. He does the heavy work.

Q: When do you start putting this all together?

A: We start in July, pulling things out of our pole barn where we store everything, to see what needs repainting or fixing. We started putting things up about a month ago.

Q: How many Barnabite priests live here at the shrine?

A: There are five priests here: Father Joseph Gariolo is retired, and there’s Father Richard Delzingaro, Father John Paul Bahati, Father Peter Calabrese and me. I thank God for them.

Q: Have you always been artistic?

A: My mother encouraged me. She’d give me pictures of the Blessed Mother to draw when I was a boy. I had always planned on being an artist and I was leaning toward portrait painting. My teacher at Niagara Falls High School, her name was Judith, was helping me get my portfolio together to go to college for art. But that’s when the priesthood hit me and I decided to go in the seminary instead.

 I went into the seminary and then you can either become a Diocesan priest or join a religious order, but I didn’t know which order to join. I talked to my mother and she said, ‘Go to the Barnabites.’ It was like a light bulb went off. I knew the Barnabites because my mother was involved in the beginning of this shrine and the Barnabite fathers would come to our house because my mother would make dinner for them.

   So I went to the seminary, became ordained and joined the Barnabites and they lived in Buffalo at the time, but a couple, Walter and Helen Ciurczak, donated 15 acres of orchards here to the Barnabites. It happened that a barber in Niagara Falls had a statue in his garden that he wanted to donate and it was a statue of Our Lady of Fatima and that’s how this shrine was started here in the 1950s.

    I had studied in Rome for four years before I was ordained. It was heaven to be right near the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel and the works of Michelangelo and DaVinci and the others.

    I came to the shrine and then was sent to a parish in Canada for a while.

Q: And then you came back to the shrine to stay?

A: Yes. I love Jesus and the Blessed Mother and I have sat here in the cafeteria and looked out at the trees and the grounds here and thought it was because of my mother, when she would give me pictures to draw, that I planned to become an artist. It’s my breath.

   Then I became a priest. I wondered, if I had become an artist, instead, would I have had my own studio? I thought I would have liked to be a costume designer for the movies or maybe a portrait artist. Would I have been a rich artist or a poor artist and led a Bohemian life? What would my life have been like?

   But then, one day, it’s as if God spoke to me. He said, ‘You are an artist and this shrine is your studio.’

    I love my faith and I love being a priest and God had to tell me this? Can I ask for anything better than this? That did a lot for me - when I finally woke up.

   My artwork is my sermon.

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