By Michele DeLuca
Niagara Gazette — In a very special place wrapped in twinkling lights and festive holiday decor, a devoted man with a sparkle in his eyes and filled with the spirit of the season, crafts lovely gifts and carefully restores precious artifacts.
Throughout his little community there are about a dozen helpers, deeply immersed in sharing the spirit of Christmas, but the story they celebrate is not so much about a jolly old elf but instead what many believe is the true meaning of the holiday, the birth of the baby Jesus in the manger.
Fr. Julio Ciavaglia, whose workshop is crowded with stained glass projects, chipped statues and broken religious items, is director of Our Lady of Fatima Shrine in Lewiston, which is decked out for the annual Festival of Lights, home to a collection of artwork and artifacts which are available for sale there, not just during the annual holiday festival at the shrine but throughout the year.
The Barnabite priest, born and raised in Niagara Falls, started his renovation experiences at the shrine as a young man when his mother brought him in to help restore donated items there. Around that time, a calling to the priesthood won over art school and he joined the Barnabite fathers who oversee the shrine. The Barnabites sent him to Italy for four years where he came to understand how spritual artifacts help to make the faith visual.
“When you live in Rome for four years you fall in love with old art,” he said.
Eventually, the priest came full circle back to the region, and has been director of the shrine for the past 25 years where he initiated the Festival of Lights. His job - to keep people coming - has been made increasingly difficult of late.
“We’re hurting because of the economy and because of the border,” he said, noting that border restrictions have cut attendance by more than half.
“Most of our visitors come from Canada,” he noted, adding that in Canada there are many large ethnic Christian groups and “they have it in their blood to go to a shrine. To them it’s a pilgrimage.”
The priest’s interest in art has certainly helped the shrine to shine. Most recently because he was able to obtain a truckload of handmade Filipinocarvings, including statues and reliefs of the members of the Holy family — Jesus, Mary and Joseph — massive, handcarved candleholders and one unique carving from a slice of a giant tree, adorned with angelic cherubs.
Beyond the handcarved Filipino art, which the priest secured at the closing of the Candian National Exposition one year from friends he made at the Phillipines exhibit, there are other special items donated to the shrine, including a hope chest from the 1600s that is an altar in one small chapel, and a massive painting of the Sacred Heart, gifted to the shrine by the niece of an European painter.
The Fatima Shrine, which has hosted up to 100,000 visitors a year, is more lightly attended these days. Still, there are regulars who come to the domed basilica for the daily and Sunday masses. And visitors still come to see the hundreds of twinkling lights and holy statues that light up the evening sky during the holiday season.
Gregory Pope, a Lockport native and Buffalo area attorney who spearheaded the shrine’s last fundraising drive said there is a wide range of fans who support the shrine, but there is still a need for donations. “We’re hoping and praying that people who have seen what we have done already respond to the needs of the shrine. There’s a continuing need for more renovations.”
Pope, whose grandparents and parents were benefactors of the shrine, attends the annual holiday Festival of Lights with his extended family, including his 14-year-old daughter whom he hopes will continue the family’s loyalty. “It’s a great place, a spiritual oasis, and I just really love going there,” he said.
This season there are several events and concerts planned at the shrine (see box). A special feature has been added to the display this year — a lighted menorah donated by Jerry Wolfgang of Lewiston.
Wolfgang said the menorah, a giant sculpture of bronze and gold stained glass, has special meaning to the area Jewish community.
“My wife and I bought it when the (Niagara Falls) Festival of Lights went out of business,” he said. “It has quite a history to it.”
Wolfgang said the menorah was designed for the Falls’ A Festival of Lights by Mimi Schiff, the wife of Dr. Lester Schiff, once president of Temple Beth Israel of Lewiston. The stained glass came from the former Temple Beth Israel on Cedar Avenue, he said.
“I think the menorah has a great place to come to rest,” Wolfgang said of his gift to the shrine.
Fr. Ciavaglia noted satisfaction in having the menorah on display, as a visible connection to the roots of his faith.
“We owe a lot to the Jewish community,” said the priest, standing in front of the menorah on the shrines grounds recently, noting that its acquisition fits right in with the Pope’s Benedict XVI’s 2012 teachings on restoring faith and rediscovering the bible, which documents the birth of Christianity from the roots of the Jewish faith.
The menorah joins about 75 other displays at the shrine, which is open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. from Thanksgiving to the Epiphany celebration, Jan. 6. As the season unfolds, Fr. Ciavaglia looks to the future, planning for continued growth of the shrine, including replacing all the clear glass in the giant basilica dome with stained glass and tiling the ambulatory that he designed which surrounds the basilica.
“There is much to be done yet,” he explained to a visitor with a casual shrug and relaxed smile. So much to do and yet, it doesn’t feel undoable, he said. “I consider it a challenge.”IF YOU GO • WHAT: The Festival of Lights at the Fatima Shrine • WHEN: The shrine is open each day until Jan. 6 from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Holiday lights are lit at 5 p.m. Admission is free and there are several holiday events planned. The cafeteria will be open until 8 p.m. The gift shop will be open until 9 p.m. each day. • WHERE: 1023 Swann Road, Lewiston • MORE INFO: Call 754-7489 or visit fatimashrine.com. HOLIDAY EVENTS • TODAY: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Fatima Shrine Bakers Guild Bake-off and auction. • DEC. 12: Buffalo Niagara Concert Band, 7:30 p.m. • DEC. 24: Christmas Eve masses, 4 p.m. and midnight • DEC. 25: Christmas Day masses, 9 a.m. and noon • DEC. 27: Voices of Mercy Concert, 7 p.m. Contact Features Editor Michele DeLuca at 282-2311, ext. 2263.