'Gentle Woman' -- Faithful from Christ the King Parish, Long Branch, joined in a May 13 procession through neighborhood streets at which time they commemorated the miracle of Fatima. John Batkowski photo
'Gentle Woman' -- Faithful from Christ the King Parish, Long Branch, joined in a May 13 procession through neighborhood streets at which time they commemorated the miracle of Fatima. John Batkowski photo

Story by Lois Rogers, Ken Downey, Jr. and Christina Leslie, Correspondents

In nearly six months, faithful around the Diocese and indeed the world will gather to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Miracle of the Sun at Fatima, which culminated the Virgin Mary’s visitations to that small Portuguese town.

Curiously enough, as commemorations leading to that Oct. 13 holy milestone commenced around the Trenton Diocese in early May, the sun often seemed to be lost in cloudy and intemperate skies.

May is Mary’s month, however, and there was no way chancy weather could dampen the spirits of the faithful who turned out by the hundreds to honor the Virgin, formally known as Our Lady of the Rosary, and her plea for peace. Many made it touchingly clear that they also came for the children, Lucia Santos and her cousins, Jacinta and Francisco Martos, the latter of which were declared saints May 13 by Pope Francis in Fatima.  It was the children, everyone agreed, who heard Mary’s plea and despite great odds, shared it with the world.

Multi-Parish Remembrance

The shrine of Our Lady of Fatima that graces the approach to Spring Lake’s St. Catharine Church draws faithful to its picturesque setting almost every day of the year, observers say.

On May 7, however, the launch of the centennial celebration of the Miracle of Fatima by Mary’s Pro-Life Ministry, a network of six parishes along Monmouth County’s southern shore, drew more than 100 believers of all ages to the shrine, which was dedicated in 1952.

On the cold and blustery afternoon, members of the parishes of St. Catharine-St. Margaret; St. Denis, Manasquan; St. Elizabeth of Hungary, Avon; Holy Innocents, Neptune; St. Mark, Sea Girt, St. Rose, Belmar, and their guests gathered in reverent assembly.

The hour-long ceremony and social unfolded prayerfully as Fatima-themed songs and Marian hymns resounded in the peaceful vale. Reflections on the meaning of Fatima in the world from its inception to today were offered in a compelling homily by Father Martin O’Reilly, parochial vicar of St. Catharine-St. Margaret Parish.

Father O’Reilly focused on the children and their neighbors, so often described as peasants. “What’s a peasant?” he asked. “Someone often viewed as uneducated and ignorant” by society, he said, but never viewed that way by Christ.

“Christ never views any of us as ignorant or insignificant. He delivers his love to all.” Neither is any place in “God’s Creation” insignificant, he said.

Pointing out that the visions of Fatima came during the slaughter of the First World War, the Virgin Mary’s call to peace “showed that at that time when bombs were going off, life is a Sacrament. God rescued us through his mother,” giving a purpose to prayer, Father O’Reilly said.

Now, he said, humanity is degraded by the slaughter of abortion. “Just because we can’t see it, doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.” Whenever human rights are selective, as they are now, he said, those who listen can hear the cry sent out at Fatima.

“God has given you a mission to fulfill,” he said. “And maybe they will call us religious freaks and Holy Joes, but what’s wrong with being a Holy Joe? … Set a good example,” he urged. “… Take it as an honor to pray every moment of the day … for everyone you meet. … They are not peasants in God’s eyes. Share God’s love.”

Continuing Traditions

On May 12, another blustery night, hundreds of members of the Portuguese community of greater Long Branch gathered behind Our Lady Star of the Sea Church, part of Christ the King Parish, to assemble for the annual candlelight procession in remembrance of the miracle of Fatima.

Calling them all into line was Preciosa Vierira, a member of Christ the King Parish, who has been organizing the event since it began 11 years ago.

Vierira and many of those who sang and prayed the Rosary as they circled the very long city block, either grew up calling Fatima home or had parents and grandparents who did.

Fatima, she said, holds a place in their hearts that has grown over the years in New Jersey.

“I was born and raised there, and I remember when I was a kid, my parents explained [the miracle] of Fatima to me. But we were so nearby, I didn’t give it much importance,” she said.

As she matured, she came to regard Fatima and its message of peace as very important, a vital part of the heritage to be passed down to younger generations.

Looking over the throng of young people, she noted teens carrying the beads of a huge Rosary, a flock of angels, all bedecked in halos and wings and youngsters chosen to portray the shepherd children this year.

The three 11-year-olds were beaming with excitement: Ciara Santos, portraying Lucia, Rebecca Bagagen as Jacinta and Brian Morais as Francisco.

In other years, they were angels in waiting. “We dreamed of being the girls. I’m very happy we get to be the girls this special year,” Santos said.

As the procession wound through the neighborhood, members of the Chop Riderz motorcycle club, who devote themselves to charitable causes, were among those carrying religious statues of the Infant of Prague, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, St. Anthony of Padua and Our Lady of Fatima on flower bedecked platforms.

Last-Minute Arrival

The faith community of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Maple Shade, didn’t allow the vagaries of online shopping to impact their Fatima celebration.

When they found out their online Our Lady of Fatima statue order would not arrive in time for the 100th anniversary of the apparitions, the parish phoned the Portuguese manufacturer’s Newark location and were overjoyed to have a replacement shipped overnight from the northern New Jersey warehouse.

Before each weekend Mass May 13 and 14, parishioners bearing candles joined clergy and acolytes in a procession to the altar. The 30-inch tall statue was carried to the altar, held high on a litter supported by faithful, and adorned with a Rosary and fresh flowers.  The statue currently resides in the Maple Shade church and is awaiting a permanent display.

Window to Heaven

The “Our Lady of Fatima” window in St. Denis Parish, Manasquan, is one of 21 stained-glass windows installed in three sets: one circa 1900, another circa 1950 and a third during the 2008 renovation. The original windows were installed by the Von Gerichten studio of Munich, Germany. After the studio’s collapse in the 1929 stock market crash, a descendant of the studio’s art director, Georg Hiemer, formed Hiemer & Company Stained Glass Studio in Clifton, which also created windows for the church.

The parish observed the Fatima apparitions by stationing a lit candle before the “Our Lady of Fatima” window after the morning Mass May 13, where faithful were encouraged to pray the Litany to Our Blessed Mother and the prayer Pope Francis composed for the Virgin Mary. Father William Lago, pastor, placed a vase with three sunflowers near the window, recalling the dancing sun viewed by the peasant children 100 years before. A reflection posted on the parish website and written by Father Lago; Eileen Zeismer, pastoral associate, and Rachel Hendricks, of the parish Mary’s Child Pro-Life Ministry, urges the viewer to examine each symbolic aspect of the tableau of the Blessed Mother standing before the three peasant children in 1917.

“Does it not bring so much more to your relationship with Mary to know that, though she is Queen of Heaven, she comes to us through apparitions on earth to be with us, her children?” a section of the reflection asks.

Together in Prayer

White roses lay at feet of the Our Lady of Fatima statue that stood at the base of the sanctuary in St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral, Trenton, where hundreds gathered the evening of May 13.

“As Hispanics, our mothers are very important; the Blessed Mother is even so much more for us. It’s been a tradition here at the Cathedral, St. Mary’s to celebrate [her],” said Msgr. Joseph Roldan, Cathedral rector. “This is a great time in history for us, and it’s a great time for the people to unite again to really see the good that our Blessed Mother always takes us to Jesus.”

The event began in early evening with faithful praying the Rosary, joining for Mass and a candlelight procession, then attending a music performance by a popular native Colombian musician as well as the Cathedral choir in the dining hall.

A main highlight of the evening that brought great delight to the community was fulfilling a special Rosary campaign.

“It was a three-month campaign, and our intention was to give [more than] 30,000 Rosaries to Our Lady of Fatima on the celebration of the 100th anniversary of her apparition, and we exceeded that goal of 30,000,” parishioner Milady Gonzalez said.

When praying the Rosary, Gonzalez noted that the intentions were for peace in the world and the conversion of those who do not know God. 

“Some people do not know how powerful the Rosary is when prayed with faith and love, and how when we pray the Rosary, we help our Mother in heaven, who is always interceding for the world, for peace, for our salvation.  A lot of folks who did not pray the Rosary every day do now and have felt closer to God because of it,” she said.

Juan Medina, a member of the Cathedral choir, said he is devoted to the Blessed Mother.

“She’s our mother. She deserves nothing but the best,” he said. “We pray together, myself and my family; we do the Rosary together every night.”

Father Joel Wilson, who is a weekend assistant at the Cathedral, said he feels a very personal connection to Our Lady of Fatima in his spiritual life, too.

“I think mostly she was so influential in saving St. John Paul II’s life after he was wounded in an assassination attempt. That’s what made Our Lady of Fatima so prominent in my devotional life,” Wilson said. “It’s great being with the people. … Praying all of the Rosaries with them and handing them over to Our Lady of Fatima is great.”