Five years ago in Bogota, a statue of the Divine Child told Mother Angelica to build a shrine. She was traveling in Colombia promoting her Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN). Not many knew that EWTN had begun airing 24 hours of programming in Spanish, so Mother and the president of EWTN, Deacon Bill Steltemeier, were visiting several countries in South America to appeal to bishops and cardinals for support and cable companies to carry the signal.
One stop during the trip was the Sanctuary of the Divino Niño Jesus in Bogota. On arriving, Mother and Steltemeier took a tour. At the back of the church was a bust of the priest who founded the sanctuary hundreds of years ago. As though a sign from God, the inscription read “John Rizzo,” which also happens to be the name of Mother’s biological father, who abandoned her and her mother when she was a child and whom she had only seen seven times in her life.
It was then that Mother saw the statue of the Infant Jesus. It came alive, faced her, and said, “Build me a temple, and I will bless those who bless you.” Mother began to cry, and Steltemeier knew what that meant. “I’ve been with Mother for many years, so I know when she is crying she is receiving special gifts from, the Lord.”
Obeying the Christ Child’s request, Mother set herself to the task. Millions of dollars and four years later, the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament and Our Lady of the Angels Monastery lie tucked away in Hanceville, Alabama. Deep in
Bible Belt country, the shrine and monastery, which houses Mother’s community of Poor Clare nuns, occupy 360 acres of remote farmland surrounded on three sides by a river. But no one could call the shrine isolated. Busloads of pilgrims, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, some already reporting conversions and miracles, visit the shrine each day.
Little did Mother know what the Child Jesus had in mind five years ago for her and the shrine. “I didn’t know why He wanted it, but I never ask Him questions when He says to do something,” Mother says. Soon after the vision, Mother faced her first challenge. She thought to herself, “How do I build a temple?”
A Long Drive
The road to the shrine is long and winding, seemingly never ending, and lined on either side with a multirail white fence. The drive through Alabama countryside evokes a certain calm, like you are approaching something serene, something peaceful. Along the way are trees, fields of crops, a small pond, and guest houses, each yard studded with statues of Jesus and the Blessed Virgin. One of the houses stores a bus in its carport that has a picture of the Sacred and Immaculate Hearts laminated across the entire back window. The extended expanse to the entrance is meant to prepare the souls of those approaching the temple to be in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament: “I want them to start at the white fence way back to begin to feel they’re in another world. To begin to feel that there is something different, better. That’s that presence of God,” Mother says. “By the time you get in the chapel, your soul is ready to go into His presence:’
But the spiritual preparation doesn’t stop when you get out of your car. Mother didn’t want to just “put a parking lot in front of the Lord’s house.” Instead, to reach the chapel, you must climb a couple flights of steps and cross the piazza, which is about a football field long and one and a half wide. “I wanted the people to have to walk there, not get out of their cars and traipse up the steps,” Mother says. “I want them to be awestruck by the very presence of the Lord and begin to think of themselves as they stand before God. They don’t think of where they are going till they are here.”
Finding this perfect location for the shrine proved more difficult than Mother anticipated. Over many months, she and Steltemeier looked at 18 pieces of property, actually putting contracts down on two, but Steltemeier never seemed to be able to work out all the details no matter how hard he tried. Then, the real estate agent told Mother about a property in Hanceville that had been on the market for more than 20 years. Although it was farther away than she wanted to go from the network, she was open to taking a look.
On stepping out of the car, Mother said she could feel the presence of the Lord very strongly. A sister who accompanied her went down to the surrounding river. Looking down at the bank, she noticed at her feet an uncarved, embossed stone that had a cross on it. When she showed it to Mother, they knew that this was the location they were holding out for.
A 90-year-old woman owned the well-known piece of property, which had been in her family for 56 years. Many tried unsuccessfully to buy it from her. Because of this, everyone hoped that she would never sell it. Mother’s real estate agent tried unsuccessfully several times before getting Mother and Steltemeier an appointment with her. When they finally were able to see her, the woman asked Mother, “What do you want the property for?” Mother said, “I want to build something beautiful for the Lord.” And she said, “That’s great. I’ll sell it to you.”
Architectural plans for the shrine did not begin to take shape until Mother was in Rome a few months after returning from South America. After exiting St. Peter’s Basilica, she looked back and happened to glimpse at the building’s inscription, “This temple is dedicated to…” Mother began to formulate what a temple is meant to be, and the designs unfolded from there.
The Romanesque-Gothic architecture of the shrine captures the sense of the sacred that has been lost in most modern Catholic churches. “Some people forget that we are human beings. God made us to see, to hear, to feel, to touch,” Mother explains. “The spiritual aspect of us, unless you are in high union with God, depends on inspiration. And if you enter God’s house, you should be inspired.” This was the main reason five donating families, who wish to remain anonymous, funded the entire project. They are deeply grieved about the architecture of today’s Catholic churches, Mother explains, and wanted to be a part of the mission to reclaim traditional Church architecture in the new temple.
While the monastery was made for the simple, monastic life of Mother’s Poor Clare community, the shrine was built to be majestic, worthy of only the finest materials. This was reinforced by inspiration Mother received one night while praying. She read an Old Testament passage that described what God wanted for the original temple in Jerusalem: cedar, gold, silver, jasper, and marble. “Mother took that as a sign that when Jesus asked for a temple, He should have the exact same thing as what was in the Old Testament,” says Brother Angelo, one of the Franciscan Missionaries of the Eternal Word, an order of priests and brothers founded by Mother Angelica to serve the spiritual needs of the Poor Clare nuns.
The shrine’s architecture was modeled after that of 13th-century Franciscan churches and monasteries. Situated on the four points of the compass, the 100,000 square- foot shrine follows the Roman Catholic tradition of looking to the East for the coming of the Lord, with the sanctuary and altar facing East.
On the side of the altar facing the parishioners, there is a mosaic of a pelican feeding its young. The significance, Brother Angelo explains, is when pelicans don’t have food for their young, the father will tear off his own flesh and feed it to his children—a fitting symbol on His altar of what Jesus does for us every day at Mass.
On entering the shrine, the eye is immediately drawn behind the altar to the most striking architectural feature: the reredos, which separates the cloistered nuns from the pilgrims. The 55-foot-high reredos, which holds the magnificent tabernacle, is hand-carved of rare cedar from Paraguay and ornamented with 24-carat gold leaf. From the tabernacle, the eye travels up the throne to an almost eight-foot monstrance. The monstrance is said to be second only to the world’s largest in Spain, where it was made. Its shimmering gold sunburst effectively directs the pilgrim in the pew to the central focus of the chapel, the Blessed Sacrament. “It is absolutely necessary that God be the center of His house,” Mother insists. “You should not have to look around for Him. If He is not the center, then you have to wonder who is.”
Behind the reredos is the Divine Office choir, where the nuns spend time in adoration and chant the Divine Office. During the Mass, the nuns enter the cloistered Mass choir to the south of the sanctuary behind a brass enclosure grille. Above the grille are the words “Deus Meus et Omnia” (My God and my All!), the constant prayer of St. Francis.
The next most striking architectural feature is the marble floor, inlaid with red jasper crosses, which represent the death of Jesus. The arms of each cross are of equal length and point to the four corners of the earth. There is also a tan star design in the marble, which represents Bethlehem, the Blessed Mother, and the birth of Jesus. The marble is from the Carrara, Brescia, Aosta (Italian Alps), Verona, Lucca, Sicilia, and Pietrasanta regions of Italy, as well as from Macedonia, Valencia in Spain, Brazil, South Africa, and Finland.
An architectural feature was completed to commemorate each jubilee year dedicated to the Trinity. In the year for God the Son, 1997, the monstrance in the center of the church was enthroned. A rose window of a dove at the back of the church was finished in 1998 for the year of God the Holy Spirit. A rose window depicting God the Father at the back of the chapel was finished in 1999. The other stained- glass windows, made in Germany, depict the lives of Jesus and Mary as well as Franciscan saints.
Outside in the piazza, the bronze Great Doors illustrate the Seven Joys and Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Virgin. Reliefs of St. Francis and St. Clare of Assisi can be seen in the transoms of the bronze minor doors to the north and south sides of the portico. Bordered with English-Tudor-style pavers and having a central herringbone pattern, the piazza is centered by a white marble statue of El Divino Nino, who holds His heart, carved from red jasper, in His hand, warmly inviting you to accept it and take it with you inside the chapel.
Mother didn’t start off with a lot of money, but there was enough to buy the property and break ground. Several bids were considered for the project, and Birmingham-based Bryce Building Company was selected for the job. Although Bryce was the highest bidder, Mother prayed and felt the bid best fit God’s will.
The shrine was built in stages as the donations from the five out-of-state families trickled in. “Our Lord, as the money and expenses got greater, provided the next benefactor,” Mother says. “It is the only way, really, that something like this could have been done best. It would have been impossible for me to beg for money for this because of the network. Every bit of money that comes in goes to the network.”
The first job Bryce completed for Mother was small—just breaking ground and laying the foundation for the lower church. The construction crew thought it would be there only two or three months, but the project evolved bit by bit from there. “If you have all these plans, you don’t need to listen to the Lord….” Deacon Steltemeier says. “If you’re living in the present moment and you’re listening to God and you’re open to what He’s leading you to, if He tells you to go here, then He’ll provide the next step.” And He did for the next four years. Construction never stopped, although it came very close several times. Always at the crucial moment, another donor came forward to sustain the next part of the project.
To the surprise of the crew, Mother was very involved in the construction process. Tom Abernathy, Bryce’s project manager for the shrine, says he expected, as in traditional project delivery, to be working directly with the architect. However, he knew this would not be the case when the original estimator got a call from Mother asking him pointed questions about construction details, like, “Did you include the metal stud walls in the southwest wing?”
Usually with unique projects like the shrine, quality is sacrificed for the schedule or vice versa. “For Mother, quality was most important, the schedule was not,” Abernathy says. “If it took longer or whatever it took, she was going to do it.”
This required extraordinary effort from Bryce to acquire the specialty materials and craftsmanship most builders don’t use these days. Bryce spent many hours researching construction details and product information. Abernathy prepared himself when calling product reps about the unique materials Bryce was looking for. “They’d say, ‘Well, we don’t do that.’ And I’d say, ‘Well, could you do that?'” Abernathy jokes. Eventually, they would say they could.
“Mother was told that it couldn’t be done, there were no craftsmen around who could do it,” Brother Angelo says. But Mother didn’t give up. She found the craftsmen she was looking for, most outside the United States.
The last bit of construction is still under way: A welcome center is being erected adjacent to the piazza. The center will be where spiritual talks for the pilgrims will be held and the gift shop will be relocated.
Divinely Constructed Conversions
Abernathy wasn’t quite sure what to think of Mother when he first met her. “Being an old Baptist boy, she was definitely the first nun I had ever spoken to.” But he was amazed at how on top of things she was. Many of the construction crew, when they first met Mother, didn’t want to say anything to her, but “they all stood up straight when Mother would come in the room,” Abernathy says.
It didn’t take long for them to fall in love with her, addressing her affectionately as “Mother Change Order.” The construction workers had to do many things others aren’t ordinarily asked to do, but “they figured out how to do it because they love Mother,” Steltemeier says. “The workers reacted here as the children do to the Holy Father.”
Working on the shrine became very personal to many of the workers. “You build this and then you go build some other building, and it’s just not the same,” Abernathy says. Many of the crew members found it difficult to move on to the next project. “It’s really strange to be going to another job we’ve been here so long,” Abernathy says.
While this was just another job for them in the beginning, when all they could see was a big slab with metal studs, as they started finishing the project, the workers began to understand what the shrine would mean for Catholics and the Hanceville community.
During the course of the project, Abernathy talked with Mother on the phone every day and met with her two or three times a week. Eventually, they began to talk about more than just construction, about spiritual things. He was struck by the way she would pray: “When Mother talks about prayer, she says, ‘Well, I was talking to God last night. I told Jesus that I was just worried about the way these walls are.’ She talks to God just like she is talking to Sister Margaret Mary.” Not only was she thinking about the construction details, she was praying about them, Abernathy says.
Abernathy recently became Episcopalian and attributes the experience of building the shrine as a major factor in his decision. “Mother says I’m one step away,” Abernathy jokes. “It was really her influence, although probably not as much as she’d hoped.” In fact, several other construction workers on the project have converted to Catholicism as a result of working on the shrine.
Building the shrine was more of a novelty to Abernathy at first. “Being a Christian, it is neat to build a church, any church,” he says. But as he saw the shrine taking form, he learned more about Catholicism and liturgy. “You couldn’t come to work here without thinking about religion.”
This was especially true when Mother was healed in the middle of the project and could walk without her braces and crutches. While some doubted, Abernathy was truly impressed by the news. He would say, “Well, I do know this: I’ve known her for this long, and I know she needed them [the braces and crutches], and I know now that she doesn’t, that she walks.”
Pilgrim Ministry and Miracles
The volume of visitors to the shrine is increasing every day, and the priests and brothers are always at hand to serve their spiritual needs. Most people who come to the shrine have great faith but are getting beaten down in the secular world, Brother Angelo says. “They come here to get their batteries charged, to see Jesus.”
Mass is held every morning at 7:00 in the chapel. When the lower church is completed, other Masses, conferences, and benediction will be held there for the pilgrims. Confessions are held every day after Mass. Some pilgrims who come to the shrine haven’t been to confession in 30 years but feel compelled to go again, imploring the help of the brothers to reteach them how to do it. The brothers also take the pilgrims on tours and sometimes give spiritual talks.
Three rules apply when visiting the chapel. First, the dress code is the same as at St. Peter’s in Rome: no shorts, sleeveless shirts, or miniskirts.
Second, no talking other than prayers is allowed. Silence in the church is meant to tune out the numerous distractions of the secular world that tear at our souls. “We wake up with noise. We go to bed with noise. We get in the car and turn on the radio. We get into the house and turn on the television set,” Brother Angelo says. “We’re trying to keep noise going maybe to distract us from our problems.”
Third, there is no picture-taking. “We don’t want it to be like a museum,” Mother says.
The shrine is dedicated to many causes but first to the end of abortion. Brother Angelo says many women who have had abortions have come to the shrine, broken down, and accepted forgiveness for the first time.
It is also dedicated to the Child Jesus. Brother Angelo says the Jesus pilgrims see at the shrine loves like a child. “A child will forgive anything, a child will unconditionally love, and a child just wants to be loved, just like Jesus wants us to love Him.”
When children visit the shrine, they are encouraged to bring their toys. “We want children to know that Jesus should be their hero, not Pokémon;’ Brother Angelo says. He sets up their toys and asks them, “Do you look like this? Do you look like Pokémon?” Then he takes them into the chapel and shows them the Child Jesus statue. “Do you look like Him?” he asks. “He has hands, He has feet the same as you. He used to help Mom make the bed, He used to do all the things you do, right?” So who should be your hero?, he asks.
Catholic churches, even Catholics, are few and far between in Hanceville, so the majority of the pilgrims from the area come from other faiths. There are about 200 non-Catholic churches in Coman County, where Hanceville is. Visitors from these churches are very faithful, Brother Angelo says. He met an entire Methodist congregation that skipped their own Sunday service for a two-hour tour at the shrine. “Their respect for the Eucharist is sometimes better than Catholics’,” he says.
Before the shrine was completed, Mother held a day of appreciation for the citizens of Coman. Mother only expected 1,000 at most to attend, but the sheriff’s department warned her that a lot more would be coming and offered to help. To her surprise, 30,000 came. Of that number, Brother Angelo says, 80 percent were not Catholic. Regardless, they all stood in line for several hours in the hot Alabama sun, waiting for their turn to tour the structure, which, at the time, consisted only of the concrete walls.
The county sheriffs were quite impressed with the turnout as well as the event itself, so much so that three who worked that day have converted to the faith. “There was really nothing to see but concrete, but they converted because of that,” Brother Angelo says.
They came in droves, Steltemeier says, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, all searching for the same thing: “The King of kings, the Lord of lords—He is what they are attracted to. Even though they don’t know it, they’re attracted to Him.”
Non-Catholics also come to the shrine out of curiosity, asking the priests and brothers who give the tours the gamut of questions normally asked about Catholicism: Why do Catholics worship Mary? Why do Catholics pray the rosary? What is purgatory? But their most interesting question, Brother Angelo believes, is why the nuns at the shrine choose to live the monastic life. He explains to them why the sisters have dedicated their lives to Christ and that their mission is to bring thanksgiving: to pray for those who don’t give thanks, for the nine lepers of the ten who were healed by Jesus and didn’t thank Him.
While there have not been any physical healings reported at the shrine so far, there have been many other conversions and miracles. Of the stories reported, Mother has a particular interest in one woman’s. On visiting the shrine, the woman suddenly burst into tears and was approached by a couple of externs who attended to her. She told the nuns of a dream she had as a child about a house of gold. “She said, ‘For 30 years, I’ve been searching for that house of gold,'” Mother says. “And when she walked into the shrine, she said she had finally found it.”
Mother knows that many other pilgrims will come to the shrine to experience healing. “Everybody today—I don’t care if they have some kind of religion or those who have no religion—they’re coming because they need God, but they just don’t know what they need,” she says.
The Long Drive Home
Outside the house of gold in the piazza, the day winds down. The orange sun sinks behind the trees, warming the earth tones in the facade stone. The last of the cars and buses have departed, and for a while, the chatter of the birds and crickets surrounds you.
As you drive away over the hill that swallows your last view of the structure behind you, you can’t help but marvel in silence that this magnificent temple is a sign of hope, a seedling planted in an area of the country where Catholicism remains largely unknown. It is obvious, yet still mysterious, that God really knows how to build His Church, and Mother Angelica really knows how to listen to Him.