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Suburban General employees, volunteers join to restore Avalon shrine

Wednesday, July 04, 2001

By Jonathan Barnes

Jim Scisciani looked bemused as he told the story of the roses.

It was December, just before Christmas, he said. As he passed by the old Franciscan shrine on Oak Street in Avalon, something caught his eye. He looked again and saw yellow flowers blooming on a rose bush growing in front of the shrine.

"I remember it was cold and wet," Scisciani said the other day at the shrine. He walked over to the overgrown rose bush and pointed at it, seeming astonished still. "I just found it amazing that there were flowers on this bush."

A few Sundays ago, Scisciani heard that a group was meeting to restore the shrine, and he remembered the blooming flowers. "It could've been a sign," he said.

The grotto-like stone shrine was built in 1932 into a hill behind the Franciscan friary in Avalon and across from Suburban General Hospital in Bellevue. It is a smaller replica of the shrine at Lourdes, France, believed to be the site of an apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1858.

The shrine has been unused for years and was sold to the hospital about 20 years ago because the aging priests at the friary were unable to maintain it. Grass and weeds have grown over much of the stone sidewalks and steps leading to the shrine, and the place has been a hangout for youths for years. Parts of the shrine have been lost, including a statue of Bernadette, the young girl who was said to have seen the apparition.

But through the efforts of Suburban General employees, local residents and Knights of Columbus members, a movement is under way to restore the shrine and bring it back to use.

Mary McDunn, manager of rehabilitation services for the hospital, is leading the effort.

"The shrine is very visible from a lot of the patients' rooms. They can remember when there were services held there ... A lot of people have said [the shrine] is comforting," McDunn said.

In addition to cleaning up the place, the group hopes to plant flowers and raise money to repair the sidewalks and statues and possibly install lighting, she said. "Our eventual goal is to make it a place where people can go again."

Last week, members of the group went to work on the shrine and the surrounding 1 1/2 acres. Volunteers removed weeds and grass from the sidewalks, pulled vines out of trees and swept. As they did, the red, black and white marble of the steps emerged from beneath the dirt.

J.T. Lynch of McCandless, grand knight for the North Hills Council of Knights of Columbus, reflected on the shrine's past as he cleaned up a sidewalk.

"They used this years ago for services. ... People would come here from the hospital and meditate," he said.

The shrine, which is about 100 feet wide by 35 feet high, was built by the friars and Catholic volunteers from throughout the Pittsburgh area. Construction took about a year and was completed in 1932, said the Rev. Jerome Pavlik, 84, a semiretired priest who originally came to the friary in 1943.

"During the Depression days, the men came from all over to build this thing, just to work," Pavlik said. "It was an object meant to foster devotion and love to the Blessed Mother. ... And they did it out of love -- they received no money for building it. They were given a good solid meal, and that was it."

People flocked by streetcar to the shrine, which initially was used for Mass and benediction, Pavlik said. The shrine also attracted worshipers who wanted to hear their native Slovak tongue.

"Every month on the second Sunday, they'd come from everywhere, as far away as McKeesport, any place there were Slovak people, because we preached to them in Slovak," Pavlik said.

He is delighted by the restoration effort.

"I just bless the people who are behind it. The people from the hospital say the shrine is a tremendous source of inspiration to them. They're going to do a beautiful job."

To learn more about the shrine restoration effort, call McDunn at Suburban General Hospital at 412-734-6000.

Jonathan Barnes is a free-lance writer.

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