BRIDGEPORT—The St. Margaret Shrine in Bridgeport might be the only large-scale shrine in the United States dedicated to St. Margaret of Antioch, a late third-century/early fourth-century martyr whose feast was formerly July 20 (she was among some saints removed in 1969 from the liturgical calendar to make way for new saints of more modern times). The 15-year-old shepherdess from Antioch was martyred around the beginning of the fourth century.
As one of the “14 Holy Helpers,” she was among the most petitioned saints in the Middle Ages. She’s a patron of pregnant women and childbirth. St. Margaret’s was one of the saintly voices who directed St. Joan of Arc in her quest.
But it was “a date which will live in infamy” that ignited the inspiration to build this shrine in the Nutmeg State.
The decision came Dec. 8, 1941, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, and the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
That day, during prayers to Our Lady for protection for our country and servicemen, Father Emilio Iasiello decided to build an altar dedicated to the Prince of Peace. As pastor of St. Raphael Church in the city of Bridgeport, he had already purchased a rocky piece of land three miles away, where he planned to build a chapel where parishioners in the city’s north end could attend Mass.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the priest determined this would be hallowed ground dedicated to peace in the world and in memory of parishioners serving and giving their lives in the war. He turned his vision of park-like acres with chapels and wayside shrines swiftly into reality.
Before the end of World War II, the shrine drew thousands of pilgrims to pray amid the beauty for world peace and for local servicemen in the armed forces.
In less than a year, on Sept. 30, 1942, the bishop of the Hartford Diocese dedicated the lovely St. Margaret Chapel that still stands at the heart of the shrine. (The Diocese of Bridgeport was established in 1953 from the Hartford Diocese.) As the shrine grew, so did the generous stone paths and stairways, many extra wide, to reach the different terraces, grottos, Crucifixion scene and other life-size images in several wayside shrines.
Over the years, more shrines were added, with others refurbished, and the stone work and landscape were enhanced.
The process continues, as several new shrines, like ones to Our Lady of Fatima, Our Lady of La Vang, Our Lady of Guadalupe and Padre Pio, plus others, have been added recently.
Today, St. Margaret Shrine has another distinction. It has been named a diocesan shrine, and when the parish’s main church closed, it became the parish church, too.
As visitors enter along a short drive lined with white lampposts, a larger-than-life marble statue of Christ the King standing on a high stone pedestal welcomes them with open arms.
Next, before the chapel, a large circular pool surrounds a moving scene. On a stone pedestal in the middle, a huge sculpture depicts St. Francis comforting the Crucified Jesus, who has taken one arm down from the cross to place on the saint’s shoulder. The scene is modeled on a Murillo painting that depicts the friar consoling Christ the Savior.
When chapel doors are open, the sound of the fountain creates a soothing backdrop for meditation before the Blessed Sacrament.
The chapel’s simple colonial exterior is unassuming, even though most of the building materials came from a mansion that was razed in Fairfield, the town next door. The Renaissance interior has room for about 300 worshippers. After the turn of the millennium, the prayer space was fully renovated and enhanced.
The side altars, in addition to the main altar, are constructed of faux marble built from the mansion’s period mantelpieces and elaborate woodwork.
The decorative lines of all this richly ornate faux marble blend in tones of spring and summer greens, light brown-grays and white-grays. Golden outlines add highlights to the sanctuary’s beauty.
The triptych painting behind the small main altar centers on the Crucifixion. To each side of Jesus Crucified, scenes show a penitent soul searching for the light and an angel escorting another into heaven. Above the side altars, paintings framed within white mantels draw attention to a Pietà scene on one side and, by the tabernacle, St. Margaret of Antioch receiving the palm of martyrdom.
The paintings are reproductions of the famous originals by Redemptorist Brother Max Schmalzl, a renowned European religious artist who died in 1930. Nearby, there’s also a life-size statue of St. Margaret.
Directly outside the chapel, the altar dedicated to Our Lady, Queen of Peace, with its life-size Pietà, a superb replica of Michelangelo’s famous work, has attracted visitors since 1943. It rests atop a sizable marble altar that continues the classical Renaissance style.
The 1940s-’50s parishioners and relatives who were artisans and craftsmen fashioned and carved many parts of the shrine, such as this altar and the terrazzo terrace. Their skills, and those of others, continue this heritage today.
The “surprise” on the back of this altar dedicated to the Queen of Peace is a niche holding the “Group of the Holy Rosary” statue, which showcases depictions of the Blessed Mother, Infant Jesus, St. Dominic and St. Catherine of Siena.
So much was accomplished so quickly at St. Margaret’s, often unplanned. The Lourdes Grotto on the sylvan hillside and ledges, dedicated in October 1943, came about unexpectedly. When rocks were blasted, one charge shaped a high ledge into this grotto reminiscent of the one in Lourdes, France. Visitors reach the prayerful place by following one of the broad stone staircases and paths, all completed in European-styled masonry.
From the highest rock formations, natural water from a 200-foot-deep spring cascades gently down the ledges and past the grotto. Towering at the very top of a rock formation, the life-size Crucifixion scene, with Jesus, Mary, John and Mary Magdalene, takes visitors to Golgotha. The climb is gentle because the land slopes kindly on one side and has a choice of stone stairs and pathways wending their way to the top.
Lower down the hillside, the “Garden of Gethsemane” depicts a life-size Jesus praying. This image of our Suffering Lord looks above, where a comforting angel holds a chalice and points heavenward.
Swathed in trees and shrubbery and flowers in season, the hillside and ledges provide a serene place of prayer.
Each shrine along the different paths, levels and terraces showcases Mary and more saints: Our Lady of Grace, Our Lady of Fatima with the three children, Our Lady of Charity and St. Sebastian, among others. A recent shrine with an oversized image of Jesus welcoming children is a memorial to those children who died in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012.
There are Stations of the Cross, as well as another grotto open during Christmastide for Il Presepio, an elaborate Nativity display.
The wayside altar of St. Margaret of Antioch is a marble and mosaic shrine with twin cerulean-blue tiled pillars supporting its roof. It has a victorious Lamb of God carved into the altar and a mosaic larger-than-life-sized portrait of St. Margaret. In this mosaic, she is shown hovering above the Italian town where she was venerated by many who emigrated to America and to this parish.
The shrine is also home to a large Padre Pio Society Prayer Group, so there is an enclosed St. Pio of Pietrelcina Memorial Shrine.
Another popular spot of strong devotion is the St. Anthony Candle Shrine. The grounds include an All Saints’ Chapel, too.
Throughout, visitors will find true spiritual and natural beauty.
Joseph Pronechen is a Register staff writer.
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