Holy Family Church works to preserve its unique shrine
By Katherine Long
Sun associate editor
When Geraldine Burke was growing up, Holy Family Church in Syracuse was like an extension of home. Her house was across the street from the church, and her father’s gas station was just a stone’s throw from there. Her family was close to the pastor, Father Michael Lyons.
“Father Lyons was a wonderful man. He even taught me to ride my bike and rollerskate,” she recalled.
Geraldine got her bicycle when she was seven — right around the time Father Lyons began a project that has proven to be one of his lasting legacies: the building of Our Lady of Lourdes Shrine.
Driving or walking on the aptly named Shrineview Drive, which runs behind Holy Family’s parish offices, it’s impossible to miss the shrine. Tiered stone arches soar 35 feet above the ground, sheltering a white statue of the Blessed Mother. Archways to the left and right open onto an altar and several low stone kneelers. Imposing at a distance, the shrine even more impressive up close, when its thousands of individual, hand-laid stones can be seen.
The unique shrine has been a point of parish pride and piece of local history for 60 years. But time has taken a toll, and now pine trees aren’t the only things that surround the site — orange safety barriers keep visitors from getting too close to the weakened structure.
“We came to a point where we had to decide if the best thing to do was take it down or try to save it,” said current Holy Family pastor Father Richard Prior.
The shrine was a labor of love for Father Lyons. While serving as a chaplain in World War II he made a promise that upon his safe return he would build a shine to honor the Blessed Virgin Mary, to whom he had a great devotion. When he came home, he was determined to make good on his promise.
He found Louie Gallo, an Italian mason who was in Syracuse helping to build the veterans hospital. Gallo shared Father Lyons’ devotion to Mary and agreed to take on the project, working without pay in his spare time.
“He built the shrine with no blueprints or plans,” said Father Prior. “He would build a wooden frame, place the stones on top, and when the mortar dried he’d take the frame away.”
Many of the stones were brought to the site by parishioners, who collected them from their yards or their travels. Some were dedicated to men who died in World War II, according to parishioner Paula Meseroll.
It took a few summers’ worth of weekends to finish, but on Sept. 15, 1952 Bishop Walter Foery officially dedicated Our Lady of Lourdes Shrine. After completing his one-of-a-kind masterpiece, Gallo returned to Italy, never to be heard from again.
Over the years, the shrine was used often by the faith community. In the warmer months, the 7:30 a.m. Sunday Mass was celebrated there, as was First Saturday Mass. It was the site of many school liturgical events; Geraldine remembered visiting the shrine with her religion class to pray, recite the rosary and lay flowers at Mary’s statue.
“It was a beautiful place,” she said.
It’s been several years since visitors have been able to pray at the shrine. Harsh Syracuse
winters have left the shrine structurally unsound and potentially dangerous. Over the years, water has crept between the stones and into the mortar. With every freeze and thaw the water expands and contracts, slowly disintegrating the mortar and causing the arches to lose strength and stability.
By last spring, the time had come to make a decision about the shrine’s future. A team of professionals came to inspect the site and advise on next steps.
“They all said the same thing: “It’s one-of-a-kind, there’s nothing like it, it’d be a shame to see it taken down,’” said Father Prior. “But we knew the repairs would be very costly. There was serious consideration of ‘Are we being good stewards? Is this a responsible thing to do financially?’ I wasn’t sure the community was prepared to make such a financial commitment.”
The parish council shared his concerns, and decided to survey parish members. There were those opposed to the expense, but “the more we talked to people, the more we found they supported [refurbishing the shrine],” said Father Prior.
A portion of the funds raised through Holy Family’s current capital campaign, “75 Years… and Still Growing in Faith,” will be dedicated to repairing and enhancing the shrine. A resin will be injected between the stones to fuse them back together, a roof to prevent future water damage will be installed and the stonework will be repointed. A new sidewalk and parking lot, in addition to new lights and pavers, will make the site safer and fully accessible to people who are handicapped. Blueprints need to be finalized and town approvals need to be secured, but Father Prior anticipates the repairs will begin in the spring of 2013.
“Once the shrine is refurbished, we hope to do all the things that were once enjoyed there,” Father Prior said. “We look forward to seeing it being fully utilized again, for the celebration of Mass, for prayer, for events. We want to reestablish it as a place of pilgrimage.”
Having witnessed the original construction, Geraldine is pleased to see the shrine being restored and preserved. “I’m very happy,” she said. “It’s a special place I’ve always loved.”