J | M
The little shrine was close by, just right for an after-supper family outing.
The Our Lady of Lourdes Garage Project started when a homeowner a few miles off turned his backyard garage into a prayer room. Soon, word spread to the neighbors, and got around town. How? Maybe it was printed up in the St. Anthony Messenger that every household got in the mail, or mentioned at church with the week’s announcements. However we found out, it was all the talk on our street, at night when neighbors sat on the steps and lawn chairs talking about the day. One long summer evening, our parents decided to go see for themselves. They hopped in the cars with the children, and we set out in a little convoy.
The family with the garage was at home mowing the lawn and hanging the wash on the line. They were used to people stopping by, and told us to go right on in. The men stood outside a while first, talking to the man of the house about his creative home project. They listened to and talked with our host about his giving up a good indoor parking spot, and his investment in concrete, plumbing materials, electrical wiring, benches, a stereo system, landscape and garden supplies, not to mention statuary. Then, once they knew how the shrine worked, they took a look in the door and agreed that the place was fixed up nicely and was worth the trip.
The moms talked to the wife in a quiet way off to the side. They listened to her story about the Blessed Virgin’s intercession for their family. We kids didn’t hear any details about it, but we heard other stories like it all the time. Maybe somebody’s relative needed an operation, or a couple wanted God to send them another baby, or a son was going into the Army. So families printed a note in the church bulletin to dedicate a Mass, or they asked the priest to serve a whole novena of Masses nine days in a row, or they made a pilgrimage, or stayed in the church all night for 40 Hours’ Adoration to gain indulgences for a deceased loved one in Purgatory, or they took out a newspaper ad with the prayer to St. Jude, patron of hopeless cases. This family prayed to Our Lady to intercede for them with her Son Our Lord; the prayers were answered, and the family built the shrine.
That made perfect sense to us.
We all liked extra devotions. At school, at the top of every sheet of paper, before writing a word we always drew a cross with the initials J M J, to dedicate our work to Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. One mom in town made a pilgrimage on the first Saturday of every month for a year because the family’s new baby had asthma, so Mom got up at 3:00 a.m. and left the baby and the kids with Dad and drove Upstate to a mission shrine for a special healing Mass and a bottle of blessed holy water; she always got home just after midnight, and she anointed the baby with that holy water every day until the next month’s trip. One grandmother took old broken charm bracelets and necklaces, and made rosaries as gifts. One girl in high school baked hot cross buns with sugar crosses on them for every day in Lent and gave them away. One neighbor went to her garage piano at 5:00 every morning to play and sing “Immaculate Mary, our hearts are on fire!” and we could hear her all up and down the street. One family lost their son when he was hit by a car, so the father made a little altar with his son’s picture, and candles; then he cast a white plaster mold of Michelangelo’s Pieta, the size of your hand, and put that on the altar. The he made a second Pieta to put beside it. Then the neighbors liked his Pietas so much that he worked for weeks, day and night, to make Pietas for everybody. He painted them in silver and gold with Christmas glitter around the base, and even made enough to surround his backyard fishing pond. There the little Pietas formed a circle around the pond, sparkling in the sun.
But the Garage Shrine to Our Lady of Lourdes was special.
It was like a whole outdoor scene right inside in a room, like the Natural History Museum in Manhattan, or the Bronx Zoo and Botanical Garden, but more holy. In different houses I saw plenty of little scenes like H&O model railroads with green plastic grass hills, or Nativity sets with fluffy spray-on snow. But this was the first time in any house that I could walk in and feel like we were all surrounded out in a peaceful place of nature.
The garage door and ceiling had corky white squares with holes like Munster cheese, to keep out noise. There was a chorus singing music, and not like our phonograph record turntable or transistor AM radio either. This music came from everywhere all around and filled the air but in a very soft way. The front wall was a hillside grotto cave made out of white stones, and a waterfall with spray mist trickling down the rocks into a fountain. The ceiling was like a black velvet sky with tiny white twinkling lit-up stars. The waterfall grew thick ferns and jade plant and white peace lilies and moss. The grotto had a beautiful statue of The Holy Virgin. The family kept a little bouquet of white roses at her feet. She wore a white flowing robe and blue veil and gold crown and the gentlest face, holding out a long crystal rosary in her hands.
I sat on the bench looking up at the face of Our Blessed Mother, and thought about how this is how she really looks all the time, watching over us. Everything outside that garage faded away, and the bench felt like a good and comfortable place to just stay for good. But finally the parents called their kids to get in the car, and we all drove home. And even then, the picture of that shrine was too beautiful to forget. Everyone else went indoors to lights and conversation and housekeeping and TV. But to keep that picture fresh in mind, I stayed outdoors in the silence. I lay down on the front lawn in a cross shape, and looked up at the sky.
The weather was perfect and quiet and clear. The sun was setting. The sky was all goldish blue. Right overhead, there were folds of light clouds row on row like flying geese. They turned from white to pink to lilac. I lay there a long time in the white clover flowers with the planet turning under my back. The thought of Our Mother left a completely pure feeling in the grotto of my heart.
Heaven looked so close. It seemed a very good idea to die, leave now, and float up there.
I prayed to God to let me keep this shrine feeling forever, and thought that maybe this feeling would stay if I went through the rest of my life and never committed a single sin ever again. Then in the end my soul could rise and fly along as just another rose cloud.
In the house, through the open kitchen window, Mom and Dad dried the dinner dishes and got ready for the next day of job and school. They didn’t say anything about our trip to the shrine. They talked about work, because they worked all the time. So I didn’t mention our visit to them or to anybody else. But now all these years later, it would be good to mention it to that family, to find them again and thank them and to hear their story at last.
That family didn’t preach at us with special visions or prophecies from the Queen of Heaven. Instead, because of her they gave up savings and weekend free time and living space, put the car outside in a weatherproof tarp, made trips to the hardware store and garden center, tinkered with the tool box, and then opened their driveway to interested strangers. They seemed to think that grace waited to bless anyone who stopped by. And they were right.
Their gratitude and hospitality were the real beauty of the Lourdes Garage. It was devotion so pure and simple that pure and simple people can make a home for it anywhere.
At any time. Under any roof.