The Shrine of the Blessed Sacrament in Hanceville, Alabama

Photos: Fr. Francis Mary

The Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament of Our Lady of the Angels Monastery is an awesome sanctuary in the rolling hills of Hanceville, Alabama (Diocese of Birmingham).  Constructed in the creative footprint of the 13th-century Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, the Shrine has become one of the most important pilgrimage centers to visit in the US for both individuals and groups.  The Shrine is informally known as the OLAM Shrine, housing the cloistered Monastery of the Poor Clare Nuns of Perpetual Adoration, the same order of Mother Angelica that has been affiliated with EWTN, the Eternal Word Television Network.  While the Shrine is named in honor of the Most Blessed Sacrament, the building surroundings are dedicated to the Divino Niño, a Spanish title of the Divine Child Jesus.

The Shrine is the first of its kind dedicated to the Blessed Eucharist.  It has its origins in a little-known and miraculous apparition of Mother Angelica.  It is also family friendly -- not a regular tourist destination, but a pilgrimage site - the perfect destination for a summertime family road trip with the whole family.  In short, it is an oasis of faith in the American south.  In some ways the Shrine brings to mind the words of Christ: "Come apart into a desert place, and rest a little" (Mark 6:31).  

The Shrine is a place where pilgrims can visit to honor the Blessed Sacrament, to rest their souls, to renew their faith, and to give themselves the opportunity to receive the manifest graces associated with pilgrimage.  I highly recommend a visit.  Pilgrims can stay here.  One of the most beautiful sounds in the world is cloistered nuns in choir, chanting Holy Mass and the Divine Office.  Mother Angelica was the foundress and first Abbess who lived here from 1999 until her death on Easter Sunday in 2016.  She is buried in the crypt chapel of the Shrine; a further reasons why pilgrims travel here.  Of Mother Angelica it was said of her in life "that none every approached her without going away better."    

Mother finalized every decision of the construction, from the greatest to the smallest.  Both traditional and modern building materials and techniques were used in the construction process, with some techniques being devised on sight.  Mother always said the happiest day of her life was the day the Shrine was dedicated, "because I could give something so beautiful to Him."  She commented that we live in a society that spends fortunes on amusement parks, shopping centers, and casinos while God deserves at least the same and more.    

Also included at the Shrine is an excellent gift shop called El Niño, with all proceeds going to the Sisters.  It is located inside a structure that resembles a castle, named after San Miguel (St. Michael), complete with battlement towers, and architectural features such as merlons and embrasures, sure to capture the imagination of children and adults alike.  The Shrine chaplains are the wonderful Franciscan Missionaries of the Eternal Word, a community of friars founded by Mother Angelica in 1987 to be a spiritual support for EWTN.  With Franciscan spirituality, their primary apostolate is prayer while providing sacramental needs at the Shrine.  

The History of the Shrine Chapel

The story of the founding of the Shrine began in 1995 when Mother Angelica, the well-known foundress of EWTN (the world's largest religious television network), traveled to Bogotá, Columbia.  There she visited the Sanctuary of the Divino Niño ("the Divine Child").  At the sanctuary there is a miraculous statue of the Child Jesus that attracts pilgrims by the thousands.  It is a 17-centimeter high statue with arms stretched out wide with the inscription: "Yo reinaré("I will reign") at its base.  Many pilgrims visit here to ask for healing, especially for issues of infertility.  

While Mother Angelica was praying and looking up at the statue, it suddenly became alive and turned to her and spoke thus: "Build Me a Temple and I will help those who help you."  Overcome with emotion, Mother pondered this experience and returned home wondering how she could fulfill this request.  After searching for land for several  months, her real estate agent led her to the future site of the Shrine, a former soybean field in Hanceville, Alabama.  Mother Angelica visited the 400-acre site and from the moment she stepped on the property, she felt the strong presence of God.  The deed for the land purchase was signed on August 2nd, the feast of Our Lady of the Angels, the patronal feast day of Mother Angelica's monastery.  

To Mother Angelica, the story of the Shrine was a miracle from the beginning.  "From the very start," she shared, "it was the Lord's doing - He designed it, He built it, and He paid for it."  The entire edifice was paid for by 5 families who wanted their donations to remain anonymous.  The interior of the church was entirely designed and built by the master architects and Spanish artisans of TAG (Talleres de Arte Granda, S.A.), a church design company located in Madrid, Spain that was founded in the 1891 and reveals in this project its customary magnificence and solemnity.

Today pilgrims flock to the Shrine to pray before Christ exposed for Eucharistic Adoration, with the memory of Mother Angelica in their hearts.  She is buried in the crypt of the chapel which is open to the public.  The visit lives on in the hearts of all who visit.  By the experience visitors are led to a deeper love of the Blessed Eucharist and the Infant Child Jesus.  The soul is refreshed and the interior life is renewed.  This is exactly what Mother wanted.  The Shrine was built in a few short years, consecrated on Dec. 19, 1999, on the eve of the Holy Year 2000.  Not a week later Pope John Paul II opened the bronze Holy Year doors of St. Peter's Basilica on Christmas Eve, ushering in the official celebration of the Great Jubilee of the New Millennium.  

The Pilgrim Experience 

Constant streams of people, over 100,000 per year, enter through the bronze doors of the Shrine, experiencing the Eucharistic presence of Christ.  They enter as pilgrims on a journey, greeted by their Eucharistic King, Jesus Christ the King.  Visitors are touched in a profound way.  No one is left unmoved.  Many remark that the monstrance is the most beautiful thing they have ever seen.  Photos inside the church are not permitted.  There is a dress code.  Silence is observed inside the chapel.  Guides give explanations outside.  The chapel is maintained as a house of prayer and is shared primarily as the chapel with the nuns.     

 Before the awesome majesty of the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist, all of the art and architecture point to the monstrance in the center of the sanctuary, evoking the true, real, and substantial presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.  The encounter evokes a spiritual response from the soul: to give love in return for love.  A pilgrimage is thus an encounter with the living God.  It is a meeting between the soul and Christ in His Eucharistic presence.  This meeting of hearts inflames the soul with a desire to follow Him, for He is the Bread come down from Heaven.  The entire Shrine is conducive to recollection, leaving behind the focus of what is left behind, entering to what the Lord desires to give: Himself and His love.  Pilgrims ponder the transformative experience.  

The Exterior of the Chapel 

From a distance visitors follow a country road with two miles of white fence that leads to the Shrine entrance gate.  On either side is a long river that loops around the property.  Cattle, horses, and a donkey that belong to the monastery can be seen grazing on the verdure pastures.  Visitors catch their first sight of the shrine, with its 110-foot bell tower that houses a carillon of 14 cast-bronze bells, 11 of which are over 100 years old (having been obtained from an older church and restored).  3 news bells were cast to complete the musical scale.  In the Catholic tradition, the bells are "baptized" (blessed) and each has a name.  The largest is the Divino Niño Jesús, which tolls the hours of the day and the Angelus/Regina Caeli. 

In the piazza in front of the Shrine chapel, visitors enter the plaza that is the size of approximately two-and-a-half football fields (259' x 289').  English Tudor-style pavers border the piazza and colonnade.  The design is a central herringbone pattern that was painstakingly laid by American and Brazilian craftsmen.  Visitors are first drawn to the monument in the middle of the Divino Niño Jesús, the centerpiece of the piazza.    The statue, of white marble, depicts the Child Jesus holding his loving heart made of Red Jasper in a welcoming gesture, inviting all to accept His love and imitate His childlikeness.  

Engraved in 4 languages on the steps leading up to the monument is a message of hope for all who pass by: "...and a little Child shall lead them" (Isaiah 11:6).  These languages were selected to represent the peoples that contributed to the construction and adornment of the Shrine.  
Mother intended for this statue to inflame the hearts of parents with love for their children and for it to be a deterrent to women who may be considering an abortion, to change their hearts and choose life.  

Outdoor steps ascend up to the top of the main entrance of the Shrine - four massive bronze doors.  The steps are 7 in number, symbolic of the 7 days of creation in Genesis and the 7 Gifts of the Holy Spirit in Isaiah.  
The late Medieval, early Italian Renaissance front facade draws the eyes heavenward.  It is inspired by the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, which was begun in 1228.   The architecture is a synthesis of the Romanesque and Gothic styles.  The Shrine reflects many of the typical characteristics of Umbrian architecture that is commonly seen in Assisi.   

The exterior stone came from Canada and the U.S.  The tiles on the roof came from Columbia, South America.  The decorative stone capitals that mount the pillars around the front entrances are made of Indiana limestone, and were designed in a 13th-century style, displaying delicately carved acanthus leaves.  
A rose window in the middle depicts God the Father, an image seen from the inside through reflected sunlight.  Above this is a smaller circle in the style of a medieval ventilation port, covered with an ornamental wrought-iron grille.  A carved oculus above the entrance portal in the middle depicts the coat-of-arms of the Sisters with their motto in Latin: Adoremus in Aeternum Sanctissimum Sacramentum ("Let us adore for all eternity the Most Blessed Sacrament").  Two smaller medallions are on either side, representing Christ as the Alpha and Omega, the "beginning" and the "end."  

The 4 once shining bronze doors of the Shrine with relief sculptures resemble the renowned doors of the Baptistry of the Cathedral in Florence, Italy, where the poet Dante was baptized.  Michelangelo, a native of Florence, once dubbed the east doors the "Gates of Paradise."  They were by by the famous artists Pisano and Ghiberti.  The doors in Hanceville, of similar craftsmanship, were the creations of Granda in Madrid, Spain. 

The reliefs on the doors, 21 in number, provide 14 meditations on the life of Our Lady.  Pilgrims unite their joys and sorrows with the 7 joys and 7 sorrows of Mary.  The two sets of center doors are an invitation to enter into the mysteries of the life of Christ.  The Latin inscriptions above the central doors read: Virgo Septem Laetitiarum Filius Eius Pro Nobis Natus Est (Virgin of the Seven Joys, Your Son Was Born for Us").  And Virgo Septem Dolorum Filius Eius Pro Nobis Mortuus Est ("Virgin of the 7 Sorrows, Your Son Died for Us").  The intricate beauty of the doors offers a glimpse into the glory of the Lord, which fittingly shines with splendor inside the magnificent temple.  The very act of opening the doors and entering the Shrine symbolizes the pilgrim's journey to open the heart, especially to the grace of healing and conversion.  The two sets of minor doors off to the side of the front depict in their lunettes the two greats saints of Assisi: St. Francis and St. Clare, the founders of the Franciscan orders for men and women.  

The cross mounted on the top of the facade is clearly broken.  It was altered when a fierce storm sheared off the upper portion at the time the chapel was constructed.  Mother Angelica saw this as a sign of Divine Providence, and decided to leave it.  This was because the new damaged cross actually resembled the "Tau" cross (in Latin:
crux commissa), a popular version of the cross seen in Assisi, Italy.  This style of the cross is T-shaped with a vertical beam terminating at a horizontal beam.  The Franciscan Order from its earliest origins has been associated with this cross.  St. Francis himself adopted the symbol and used it as his signature and seal.  In fact, the IV Lateran Council, called by Innocent III, identified the Tau cross as a sign of conversion to be widely used by the Church.  

The Interior of the Chapel

Upon entering the chapel, pilgrims are awestruck by the radiant other-worldly beauty and awesome majesty of the sanctuary, with everything pointing to the Blessed Sacrament exposed for public veneration in a golden monstrance.  The heart of visitors is enkindled with a feeling of entering heaven.  Statues of angels kneel in adoration before the monstrance.  The beauty of the sight allows for the pilgrim to refocus and give homage to Christ the King.  

The main centerpiece of the chapel is a golden rood screen with magnificent golden tabernacle (designed as a miniature Gothic church) and the 7.5-foot (2.3 meter) monstrance -- at the very heart of the temple.  The lighting is arrange in such a way to maximize the brilliance of the golden sanctuary.  The monstrance, taller than a man, can be seen from both the public side of the chapel and the cloistered choir that is not visible to the public.  
The ornate golden rood screen behind the main altar divides the shrine chapel into two sections, the nave where visitors pray and the cloister where the nuns pray day and night in a spirit of perpetual adoration on the other side of the screen.  There the nuns have their own altar and golden tabernacle, with an enameled image of St. Clare on its door.  The rood screen structure is an actual free-standing wall that was crafted in Spain with intricate Gothic details that include pinnacles and finials.  All the adornments were hand-carved from wood and golf-leafed by hand, a laborious and antiquated process.  

Meanwhile, the gilt altar rail shines in gold as does the gilt grille on the south side of the sanctuary that separates the cloistered choir of the Sisters from the sanctuary and the view of the congregation.  The Latin inscription on the Gothic arch reads: Deus Meus Et Omnia ("My God and My All"), a prayer of St. Francis.  
In this hidden side chapel behind the enclosure grille, not open to the public, the Sisters attend Holy Mass, make their thanksgiving after Mass, and recite the Holy Rosary.  Here the chapel organ is located.  The sisters sit in descending pews.  Four stained glass windows adorn this chapel: the Sacred Heart, the Immaculate Heart, St. Francis and St. Clare.  The inlaid floor of this chapel has a Red Jasper cross in the design with the words "Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus" ("Holy, Holy, Holy") in the floor.  Here the nuns take turns in small groups laying prostrate during the Consecration of the Holy Eucharist during Mass.  This act of profound adoration and worship is a venerable custom within the order of the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration.  An altar boy does the same in front of the altar, a local custom.  The prostration is reminiscent of when a  nun lays prostrate at her solemn profession, signifying her total self-offering as an oblation to God the Father in Christ forever.  

During Mass a hand-painted wooden panel with a turquoise colored image of the coat-of-arms of the Sisters is raised to cover the view of the monstrance during the celebration of Holy Mass, turning the attention of all to the Holy Sacrifice on the altar.  
The arms depict two angels holding aloft a shield with the moniker for Christ in a Eucharistic sunburst: "IHS" ("Iesus Humanum Salvator" - "Jesus, the Savior of Man").  After Mass, the image is lowered once again as the Sisters chant their motto, "Adoremus in Aeternum," a call and summons to resume their daily adoration.  

The main altar of Carrara marble faces East and is ornamented with a detailed mosaic of a pelican, emblematic of Christ.  In early Church art, the pelican was a symbol of the Holy Eucharist.  This was because, according to legend, the pelican was known since ancient times to feed its children with its own blood, as Christ who shed His blood for us.  With the Eucharist He nourishes our souls with His Body and Blood.  
The precious mosaics are made of fragments of glass ands stone, a Byzantine tradition, created by artisans in Pietrasanta, Italy using a 400-year-old method of hand-chiseling and fitting the pieces together.  Massive triple candlesticks gilt in gold shine at either side of the main altar, free-standing on the ground to further enhance the solemnity.    

Side altars also of Carrara marble depict Our Lady on one and the Child Jesus on another, modeled after the Divino Niño in Columbia, South America.  These altars boast exquisite mosaics also from the Tuscan village of Pietrasanta, Italy.  Each altar is adorned with mosaics -- a lily surrounded by twelve stars for Our Lady and "IHS" for Christ.  Both altars also have a unique golden reredos behind the altar, crafted similarly of gold-leaf in Spain.  

The beautiful stained glass windows were custom made in Germany for the chapel.  The rose window behind the sanctuary depicts the Holy Spirit, inspired by the Holy Spirit window in St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican (the only stained glass window in St. Peter's).  
Other stained glass windows in the chapel represent the mysteries of the life of Christ and the holy angels.  Each angel window is orientated with the angel's gaze focused in the direction of the Blessed Sacrament.  The archangels hold scrolls depicting their names and the same with the choirs of angels.  Another window gives homage to the guardian angels and another to the angel of the Apocalypse.  A window in the sisters' part of the chapel depicts Veronica's veil, the holy relic of Manoppello.    

The only visible wood seen in the chapel are the pews and four confessional boxes that are made of a rare cedar from Paraguay, South America.  There is also a Gothic inspired wood entrance vestibule of the church also made of the same wood, that features a hand-carved relief of Christ the Pantocrator (a Greek title meaning "Ruler" or "Teacher").    

The exquisite marble floor and wainscoting of the chapel represents the universality of the Church, with pieces of natural stone coming from various corners of the world and fabricated in Italy.  The wainscoting displays quatrefoil (four-petal) designs, symbolic of the cross.  
Detail of the marble floor reveals colorful geometric designs and emphasizes the orientation of the chapel, set squarely on the four points of the compass.  The inlaid marbles are fitted with exact precision.  The crosses are of Red Jasper, measuring 34" across, in an overall design 8' wide.  Jasper is a semi-precious stone from Turkey (this is one of the materials mentioned in the Book of Revelation for the foundation of the Heavenly Jerusalem in Rev. 21:19).  The frames around the cross on the floor are of Breccia Pernice marble from Verona, Italy on a background of Cipollino marble quarried at Lucca, Italy.  The long, delicate points of the star-shaped design, which represent the star of Bethlehem (taken from the arms of the Chigi, a Roman princely family), are of Cremo Valencia marble from Valencia, Spain.  The border trim is Verde Alpi Scuro from Aosta, Italy, in the Italian Alps.  

The Basement Crypt Chapel 

There is an upper church and a lower church, both reserved for silent prayer and adoration.  In the upper church there is celebrated a daily Conventual Mass for the Sisters that is a daily sung Mass open to the public.  Here the nuns also chant the Divine Office in common in choir.  Because the upper church is a convent chapel that is also shared with the Sisters, all pilgrim services are held in the lower crypt chapel, including Masses and holy hours.  

A large stairwell called the Grand Stairway leads to the lower chapel that is accessible through a passage on the left side of the chapel.  At the bottom is a photographic replica of the Shroud of Turin, the most hallowed relic of Christendom, that bears the likeness of the actual burial cloth of Our Lord from the tomb of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.  
At the top of the stairway on the wall is a  powerful crucifixion scene in the form of a bas-relief panel made exclusively for the Shrine in Spain by Granda.  It depicts Our Lady, St. John and St. Mary Magdalene at the foot of the cross.  The image is a reminder of our own death, an exhortation to repent of our sins, ask God for forgiveness, and lead a holy life.  

The lower chapel has various statues of great value and artistic merit, all equally remarkable in their quality of craftsmanship.  The altar is of white Carrara marble with a detailed mosaic of a popular Marian monogram: AM ("Ave Maria" - "Hail Mary").  Behind the altar is a gold-leaf reredos with two hand-carved and painted statues of angels alongside a golden tabernacle.  Under the tabernacle is a tracery of a quatrefoil, a Gothic and Renaissance symbol of the cross.  The Gothic tabernacle is designed as a mini-Gothic church.     

The basement statues include a large crucifix, a priceless work of art, along with a statue of Our Lady under the title of the Immaculate Conception, the Patroness of the United States, declared so by the unanimous applause and consent of the US Bishops and confirmed by Blessed Pius IX in 1847.  Further, there are statues of St. Francis and St. Clare, the Franciscan saints of Assisi.  St. Francis is depicted as meditating upon the Passion of Our Lord. St. Francis is remembered as having loved animals.  These two statues are on either side of the altar.    

The birds had sung but two summers over the grave of St. Francis when the Vicar of Christ raised him to the glory of the altar, having him declared a saint and inscribing his name in the calendar of saints.  St. Clare, foundress of the Order of Poor Clares and spiritual mother of the Sisters, holds the monstrance, not with her bare hands, but with a silken cloth.  This recalls the true-life story of how the brave St. Clare drove away the Saracen invaders by raising up the monstrance to protect the Christian populace during a hostile invasion.  More than eight centuries have passed since the saints of Assisi ushered in a golden age of faith; both saints still having sway and assured of immortality in the hearts of men.  

Lastly, the deceased nuns are entombed in the burial crypt in the rear of the basement chapel.  There can be found the final resting place of Mother Angelica, foundress of EWTN.  Her extraordinary leadership and architect personality was the creative genius behind every detail of the construction of the Shrine chapel and building complex.  Mother Angelica's own mother is also buried next to her (her names was Sr. David and she followed her daughter to the convent and professed in 1965).  

The Nuns and Their Ministry

The Shrine is home to cloistered Sisters who freely live hidden lives behind walls separated from the world.  Here they embrace the centuries-old tradition of monastic life.  It is Jesus the Bridegroom who calls each one of the Sisters to be His Bride.  The Sisters who dwell within the Our Lady of the Angels Monastery which adjoins the Shrine belong to one branch of the Franciscan family -- the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration.  Their vocational call is to have a constant, hidden presence in the Shrine chapel as adorers.  This enables the Blessed Sacrament to be exposed in the monstrance day and night, all through the year with sisters praying in the chapel every hour of the day.  

The Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration are a contemplative religious order that is unique in the Church, consecrating their lives to adoration of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.  The order was founded in Paris, France in 1854 by Mother Marie de Ste. Claire Bouillevaux.  Mother Marie was inspired to found the order, uniting the Franciscan vocation with Perpetual Adoration.  
Today there are more than 20 monasteries of this order in 7 countries, with 3 in the U.S. (2 in Ohio). 

From the time a Sister joins, eight years of discernment pass before each nun professes her Solemn Vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, and a fourth vow: the observance of the Papal Enclosure (voluntary cloistered life).  
The Sisters as members of a cloistered community are totally dedicated to contemplation and give themselves to God alone in solitude and silence through constant prayer and ready penance.  No matter how urgent may be the needs of the outside active apostolate, such communities will always have a distinguished part to play in the Mystical Body of Christ.   

The vows give to the Sisters the freedom to immerse themselves in the joy that Jesus promised to those who leave everything and follow Him.  United by their love for Christ and the Church, in the words of Vatican II: "the more ardently they unite themselves to Christ through self-surrender involving their entire lives, the more vigorous becomes the life of the Church and the more abundantly her apostolate bears fruit" (cf.
Perfectae Caritatis, 1).

Some of the nuns are called "extern" Sisters, the members of the community who work inside and outside the enclosure.  They represent the community to the public, tending to the public side of the Shrine and at times tending to the business of the monastery with the outside world.  

In a Church where "all members have not the same function" (Rom. 12:4), the Sisters offer to God a choice sacrifice of praise.  Again in the words of Vatican II: "By their example they motivate this people; by imparting a hidden, apostolic fruitfulness, they make this people grow. 
Thus they are the glory of the Church and an overflowing fountain of heavenly graces (cf. Perfectae Caritatis, 7).

Lastly, St. Clare is the Patroness of television.  There is a miraculous story behind this.  St. Clare was bedridden for many years.  One year she was too ill to attend Christmas Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.  While the other nuns went to their chapel for Mass, St. Clare was transported in spirit to the Church of St. Francis where his friars were having their celebration.  In this way, she was able to attend Mass and even receive Holy Communion from Jesus Himself.  
Later when the nuns came back to her room lamenting her absence at their Mass, she shared with them that she had "seen" another Mass, in which she even gave details of the sermon.  Due to this miraculous event, Venerable Pius XII declared for all times St. Clare the patroness of television.   

A Thanks to Those Who Financed and Built the Chapel

If you would like to donate to the continued maintenance and upkeep of the Shrine, please give here.  Meanwhile, a special thanks to the incredibly generous benefactors who built the Shrine and sustain it today, by God's grace, without whose crucial assistance this legacy would be impossible to sustain.  

A special additional thank you as well as the various builders who contributed to the construction of the Shrine in the 1990's:  

TAG (Talleres de Arte Granda, S.A.) of Madrid, Spain.

Brice Building Company, Inc. General Contractors in Birmingham, Alabama.  

Gustav van Treeck of Munich, Germany.  

Masonry Arts, Inc. of Bessemer, Alabama.  

Savema, S.p.A. of Pietrasanta, Italy.  

Bybee Stone Company of Ellettsville, Indiana.  

Simpson Commercial Contracting, Inc. of Birmingham, Alabama.  

Verdin Company of Cincinnati, Ohio.  

The sisters rely entirely on generous donations to provide for their own needs and upkeep of the shrine.  Even though the Shrine is not a parish and does not have an assigned pastor, there is a small community of Catholic lay faithful and retirees who have settled in a few different waves to live near the Shrine, in the Alabama countryside, many close to the Shrine entrance.    

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