Sunday April 15, 2012

STOCKBRIDGE -- Eight million pieces of mail handled onsite each year. Two main websites that received 111,767 visits from March 10 to April 9. A smartphone app that's been downloaded 58,252 times since it debuted in January of last year.

In addition, a pray line that gets 22,000 phone calls a month, 17 other websites, two Facebook pages and a Twitter account.

All in the name of religion.

While the National Shrine of the Divine Mercy on Eden Hill shines the brightest today -- Mercy Sunday -- behind the scenes the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception (MIC) and 100 lay staff members are part of a year-round global mission devoted to Divine Mercy.

Fr. Michael Gaitley, MIC, displays a smartphone app from the Shrine of the Divine Mercy in Stockbridge. The app has been downloaded nearly 60,000 times.
Fr. Michael Gaitley, MIC, displays a smartphone app from the Shrine of the Divine Mercy in Stockbridge. The app has been downloaded nearly 60,000 times. (Ben Garver / Berkshire Eagle Staff)

MIC is the Stockbridge contingent of 20 priests and brothers who oversee the shrine their predecessors built more than 50 years ago. They are among the 500 Marian Fathers in the United States, Italy, Poland and 17 other countries who spread the Divine Mercy message.

Mercy Sunday is an international Catholic feast day promoting Jesus' message that he's merciful to everyone, and that people should trust in his mercy and lead a compassionate life.

Through television, websites and social networking -- along with traditional promotional methods such as books, newsletters and specialty gifts -- the local Marians' outreach, which began during World War II, has circled the globe. The clergy also travel 50 times a year across the country and overseas in true missionary fashion.

The shrine -- open year-round -- attracts roughly 70,000 visitors a year, according to Fr. Kazimierz Chwalek, MIC, the Marians' provincial superior. He said the figure includes attendance for the annual Mercy Sunday celebration held on Eden Hill the Sunday after Easter; the event drew an estimated 17,000 last year.

Visitors Jeanine Gagne and Janet Dellea, right, light candles at the Marian Helpers Center, the hub of a group devoted to the spiritual and financial
Visitors Jeanine Gagne and Janet Dellea, right, light candles at the Marian Helpers Center, the hub of a group devoted to the spiritual and financial support of the Marian Fathers. (Ben Garver / Berkshire Eagle Staff)

The Marians say they've come to rely on printed and electronic communication to bring the message of Divine Mercy to millions and help draw more people to the shrine.

The Macias family, from New York City, first learned about the shrine on the Internet.

"We looked at the computer to learn about [this place]," 9-year-old Sebastian Macias said during a recent visit to Eden Hill with his mother, Nora.

She added: "I like it here, especially the shrine [because] it has the pictures of the 12 Apostles."

Chwalek cites how the shrine's 22-year relationship with a religious television network has helped Eden Hill become a destination point.

These three bronze statues are among the 11 already in place along a trail re-creating Jesus’ footsteps as he carried a cross to his crucifixion.
These three bronze statues are among the 11 already in place along a trail re-creating Jesus’ footsteps as he carried a cross to his crucifixion. Three more statues will be installed this summer. (Ben Garver / Berkshire Eagle Staff)

Every year but one since 1990, the Eternal World Television Network (EWTN) has done a live broadcast of the Mercy Sunday celebration, and the telecast has been seen by millions worldwide.

"I have seen people from the Philippines, France, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq and other countries come here because they have seen us on TV," Chwalek said.

The Marian Fathers say they expect a crowd of 15,000 to 20,000 for today's Mercy Sunday celebration, along with a captive audience on EWTN.

"This [shrine] is not for us but for the people," Chwalek said.

While television and websites have helped the Marians spread their message, don't expect the electronic media to replace hard-copy information any time soon, said Francis Bourdon, executive director of the Marian Helpers Center.

Fr. Michael Gaitley, MIC, is the spiritual leader and director for the Marian Helpers Center.
Fr. Michael Gaitley, MIC, is the spiritual leader and director for the Marian Helpers Center. (Ben Garver / Berkshire Eagle Staff)

The center is the hub for the 1.5 million-member Association of Marian Helpers, devoted to the spiritual and financial support of the Marian Fathers.

"We haven't seen a lack of demand for our printed materials," Bourdon said. "However, Facebook and Twitter are drawing more people to the core of what we do."

Bourdon said the center works with 350,000 active donors who contribute money to support the shrine and the Marians' various programs and activities to promote the message of Divine Mercy.

The facility also annually distributes 8 million copies of pamphlets, booklets and newsletters -- so much mail that Eden Hill needs its own zip code (01263). 

In addition, 4 million printed, audio and visual materials are mailed by vendors -- on behalf of the Marians -- to association members.

While technically a separate operation from the shrine, Bourdon said the center combines with the shrine to act as one to promote the divine mercy message and prepare for the Mercy Sunday celebration.

Today's visitors will participate in an outdoor Mass
(1 p.m.), learn about the shrine and the Marian Fathers' mission firsthand, and take in the beauty of the 350-acre site.

During a recent visit, Milallel Ferrer, of Yonkers, N.Y., said she found peace on Eden Hill.

"It's very solemn here and you're close to God," she said. "All your problems seem to go away. You feel cleansed."

Her son, Joel King Ferrer, enjoyed walking the grounds a week ago on Easter Sunday.

"I really liked the Stations of the Cross; they were very life-like," he said.

He was referring to the 11 bronze statues already in place along a trail re-creating Jesus' footsteps as he carried a cross to his crucifixion nearly 2,000 years ago.

The final three statues of the 14 representing the stations will be installed this summer, and a dedication ceremony will be held in September.

"Going through the stations and seeing Jesus, suffering people will find, ‘He did that for me,' " said Fr. Michael Gaitley, MIC, spiritual leader and overall director for the Marian Helpers Center.

A 35-year-old native of California, Gaitley is among the new religious and secular personnel to join the veteran clergy and lay staff on Eden Hill since early 2011.

Gaitley has four books in print or about to be published to help the faithful better understand the Divine Mercy message and related topics.

Most recently, Robin Parow and Megan Carlotta were hired as the new communications manager and copyright administrator, respectively, to enhance the publicity of the shrine and Marian Helpers.

Whether visiting or working on Eden Hill, Charlie Parise says there's no better place to be.

The 60-year-old Pittsfield resident is the manager for the Marian Helpers' printing press department; the Pittsfield High School graduate began working there at age 16.

"Anyone who stays a long time, it's because of what we do here," Parise said.

To reach Dick Lindsay:
rlindsay@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6233.