Friars share faith and shrine

A Franciscan site uses the Nativity, other events to minister more broadly


The Nativity scene Sunday at the Shrine of Saint Anthony in Ellicott City will have the bite of winter air, the bleating of real sheep and the sight of a living Mary and Joseph cradling an infant Jesus.

The purpose "is to help people to reflect on the meaning of Christmas beyond the commercialism and the materialism," said the Rev. Bart A. Karwacki, a Franciscan friar at the shrine and organizer of the event. "That is why we keep it as simple as possible."

The live, outdoor scene - called a Greccio, after the Italian town where St. Francis first held such a display in 1223 - is just one event in a series of Advent and Christmas activities intended to bring more visitors to the shrine amid the rolling hills of central Howard County.

Evening prayers are scheduled for Sunday and Dec. 18. A Christmas-themed open house with a prayer service for world peace will take place Jan. 8. And an open house for senior citizens is planned for Jan. 11.

"We are hoping to bring people out and keep the Christmas spirit alive," said Friar Noel Danielewicz, director of the shrine. "People today need to put hope in their lives. ... They need to catch the real meaning of Christmas."

The Christmas events also are a chance for people to see who lives in the Renaissance-style building with the red-tile roof on 310 acres off Folly Quarter Road.

"We are trying to promote Franciscan spirituality and hospitality," Danielewicz said. "In case you were wondering what was behind the walls, come and see."

The openness is a recent change for the 70-year-old site, which for decades was a student residence, a house of philosophy and a novitiate, where novice Franciscan friars prayed and studied, away from the distractions of the world.

As several novitiates around the country were combined into one location in Indiana, the Ellicott City site had an opportunity to focus on being a spiritual ministry, Danielewicz said.

In July 2004, the archbishop of Baltimore, Cardinal William H. Keeler, dedicated the location as an archdiocesan shrine.

The friars started opening their doors to the public seven days a week. In addition to the shrine's courtyard and meeting rooms, the first floor has a chapel that is open daily.

Visitors are welcome to sit in the two sections of facing choir stalls that once were reserved for friars reciting prayers back and forth, and to observe the mosaic Stations of the Cross, and the altar and the pulpit carved to represent the Tree of Life.

A gold-leaf bust of St. Anthony holds a relic - a piece of skin of St. Anthony of Padua - that was given to the Ellicott City friars by the Friars of the Province of St. Anthony in Padua, Italy, and installed in 2000.

St. Anthony, an early Franciscan, was a preacher, teacher and healer and is known traditionally as the finder of lost articles.

The shrine also offers programs and Masses throughout the year, as well as holiday events.

"The Shrine of St. Anthony [tries to] bring a deeper focus to the spiritual encounter with God," Danielewicz said. "It augments, it supplements what a local church can do."

The peaceful, rural setting of the grounds is intended to allow people to leave behind their concerns and "listen to God speak," Danielewicz said.

For the holiday season, the shrine has an indoor creche and decorations. One tree is decorated with ropes, fish and bread representing St. Anthony, and another has knitting needles, shawls, candles and mirrors, which are associated with St. Clare of Assisi.

The Greccio has been held eight of the past nine years and has drawn up to 400 people to hear prayers, carols and readings and to observe the birth of Jesus re-created by people and animals.

"It is what Francis actually did," said Karwacki. "It is the idea of getting us in touch with the austerity and the coldness of it. ... The simplicity of the incarnation, that was what Francis tried to get across."

The Greccio will take place at 7 p.m. Sunday, 12290 Folly Quarter Road, Ellicott City. Information: 410-531-2800 or companions

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