As I walked up the stairs to the plaza of the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament, I felt a sense of peace and holiness. I had longed to visit this remote location in Hanceville, Alabama. Mother Angelica, a Carmelite nun who earlier leapt out in faith to create the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN) in nearby Irondale, Alabama, founded the Shrine. A beautiful and devout site, the Shrine succeeds in the promise “And You…Shall Find Rest…for Your Soul” expressed in the Shrine guidebook.
Winding roads with white fences lead through green fields as you approach the dramatic gate to the complex. On my first visit, the size and variety of the Shrine and its grounds surprised me. Plan for a very full day! Better yet, you may need two days to thoroughly explore the spiritual and educational opportunities the Shrine offers.
The dominant part of the Shrine is “The Temple” or Upper Church. The entrance to the Upper Church faces a broad plaza or piazza which can hold up to 30,000 people. In the center of the piazza stands a blazing white statue of the child Jesus. He holds out His hand offering His Sacred Heart depicted in deep red jasper. This image of El Divino Nino is based on a statue created by cloistered Carmelite nuns in Madrid of which Mother Angelica was particularly fond. El Nino also is the name of the largest bell in the bell tower that rises to the left of the Shrine.
I later learned from a tour guide that this Divino Nino image was key to Mother Angelica’s founding of the Shrine. On a trip to Bogota, Colombia for EWTN business, Mother Angelica prayed before an image of the Divine Child Jesus. She had a vision. The Child became alive and spoke to her. He asked her to build a temple and promised to help those who helped her. Ever obedient to her Lord, she did so and the Shrine was consecrated in 1999.
Beneath the Upper Church you’ll discover the Lower Crypt Church along with meeting places and a reception area. I can only touch briefly here on the Shrine’s many features, but the Shrine website has a wealth of information. It provides the liturgy schedule, tour availability, and nearby lodging information. You can pack a picnic for your visit. Or, if you want to enjoy Southern food, I recommend Luna’s BBQ in the town of Hanceville.
Opposite the Temple, across the piazza, a literal castle recreates medieval settings. Castle San Miguel complements the 13th century architecture style of the Temple. Children and adults will delight in displays of knights in armor as you enter the castle. Tapestries adorn the walls of Castle San Miguel’s great hall. Within the center of the hall, tables contain displays of illuminated manuscripts. Reflect on the effort and love that went into each of these handpainted creations. The emotional and stirring statutes of Saint Michael the Archangel and Saint Joan of Arc provide yet more inspiration for contemplation.
Near the Castle is another chapel that depicts the Nativity within a cave. Light streams through small stained glass windows but the focus is on the nearly life sized scene depicting the birth of Jesus and adoration by shepherds and kings. I felt as if I too had come to adore the baby Jesus after a long journey. The entrance doors transport you inside the cave to the manger.
Like many others at the Shrine complex and in Irondale, the doors have handles carved with figures relating to what you will find when you pass through the doors. The castle doors have knights and the chapel doors have angels.
Embracing the piazza on the north and south are arched colonnades. They provide shaded passageways for visitors to walk and pray the stations of the cross and view other works of art in the cool shadows out of the sun. A striking image of Our Lord on the cross on the north colonnade nearest the Shrine stairs vividly depicts the wounds He suffered for all our sake.
To the left of the Shrine stairs is the entrance to the Lower Crypt Church and visitor reception, along with meeting rooms. Look for the warm and welcoming portrait of Mother Angelica inside. Don’t miss a fascinating exhibit with a lifesize replica of the Shroud of Turin downstairs, outside the Lower Church doors.
Adjoining the Shrine is Our Lady of the Angels Monastery of the Poor Clare Nuns of Perpetual Adoration. These are Mother Angelica’s sisters. Throughout the day, they adore Jesus, present in the Blessed Sacrament. During sung worship,the nuns’ ethereally lovely voices enchant visitors and worshippers alike. On occasion, you may glimpse the nuns briefly through the choir enclosure within the Shrine. The doors to the enclosure at the far end of the public area of the monastery are themselves another work of art with a woodcarving of Saint Clare of Assisi.
You may want to combine your pilgrimage to Hanceville with a trip to Irondale, about an hour south. Do not try to do both in the same day as you will miss a lot! Go to Mass or another devotion at the Upper or Lower Church, savor the beauty of the Shrine, visit the Crypt Church and Mother Angelica’s tomb, and look for the little treasures of art all directing your heart and soul to God.
I was delighted to discover a replica of the Grotto at Lourdes next to a stream, reminding me of when I visited Lourdes with my oldest daughter. A plaque there contains a rock from the original Grotto in France.
I also enjoyed a unique outdoor display of Stations of the Most Holy Eucharist, combining a visual depiction and quote from Scripture at each Station. A couple of evangelical Christians I met at a campsite highly recommended this as “the prayer garden with pictures” so I was curious to see what had so touched them. The use of Old Testament and New Testament scripture passages brought to life for me, like the disciples who encountered Jesus on the road to Emmaus, a deeper appreciation of the fulfillment of the Old Testament in the Incarnation and life of Christ.
The John Paul the II Eucharistic Center, behind Castle San Miguel, is a destination in itself. There are so many interactive exhibits that you could easily spend a whole afternoon or morning here between the tour and the multimedia areas. I’ve written a separate post about this Center here.
I’ve posted a lot of pictures from my trip to the Shrine on the Tin Can Pilgrim Facebook page for those who would like more details. Photographs are not permitted in the Upper or Lower Churches to maintain the sacred atmosphere for pilgrims immersed in prayer. You can visit the Shrine website for images of the interior of the Churches as well as a virtual tour.
As I continue my pilgrimage and you journey with me here or to other locations, in person or virtually, Mother Angelica’s words ring true: “Have we lost sight of this world being a pilgrimage? It’s a journey. You’re not home yet. A Christian must never lose sight of this passing reality of life.” She also said, “If you are following God, he never shows you the end. It’s always a walk of faith.” As a place to recharge and reflect on this journey, the Shrine fills the pilgrim with a sense of the eternal wonder toward which we are drawn.