Infant Jesus sculptures started to become known in European churches sometime in the 14th century. While no one is exactly sure when the first statue was actually carved, many historical sources point to the Infant Jesus in the Cistercian monastery of Santa Maria de la Valbonna in Asturias, Spain as maybe being the first, which was carved in 1340. Many masters of marble sculpture are known to have carved their own Infant Jesus’, and some of these statues are certainly more famous than others. Some of the more famous of these carvings are the Santo Nino de Cebu in the Philippines (ca.1521); the Infant Jesus of Prague (ca.1555), which was actually granted a Canonical Coronation during an Apostolic visit to Prague in 2009 by Pope Benedict XVI; the Holy Infant of Good Health from Mexico (1939) and the Divino Nino from Colombia (1940). This list is by no means comprehensive, but these are just some of the better known Infant Jesus statues in the world. Well guess what? Located at 3452 Niagara Falls Boulevard in North Tonawanda, New York is our very own Infant Jesus Shrine.
The Pallotine Fathers Holy Infant Jesus Shrine in North Tonawanda, NY has been in existence since 1958, which was originally housed in a converted schoolhouse built in 1887. What can be seen today though is actually the second shrine to exist on the property, which was dedicated in 1979. Chris and I came to learn of this place as we were doing one of our hundreds of exhaustive searches on the internets and we knew that someday we would be paying it a visit. Well that day came this past summer as we spent four days traveling across New York State checking off sites on our bucket list. If any of our readers are familiar with this part of Niagara Falls Boulevard, then you may already know that it is basically a major thoroughfare through the area that consists of several semi-industrial businesses and old run down motels. If you do not know what you are looking for, you will definitely drive right by the shrine…we nearly did. Plus, the sign for the Infant Jesus Shrine also shares space with a bingo sign which I assume is the more popular of the two signs for most people that visit this area.
Because the driveway is actually quite long, we actually pulled over right when we got off the street because we wanted to take some pictures and not have to walk back (hey, it was hot out that day). Right near the street is actually an old abandoned building which we think might actually be the first and original shrine to exist on the property. Of course we walked right up to it and found it was actually wide open. However, it is so condemned we did not go in for fear of falling right through the floor. In fact, we cannot say for 100% certainty it is the first shrine, but the fake stained glass still found in some of the windows kind of leads us to believe it might be.
We then made our way to the current shrine, which is a single building that is surrounded by raised sculptures of the Stations of the Cross behind it. As we walked in, we actually walked in with the priest. Now keep in mind, the Holy Infant Jesus Shrine of North Tonawanda is not actually a church, but is a house of prayer and worship. However, there are designated times for mass, devotions and confessions, but is really more of an open shrine where everybody is welcome to come and visit from morning to evening, nearly every day. The priest invited us to walk around and explore, but there really is not that much to explore because it is basically one room. There is a bit of a hallway when you walk in with the priest’s office to one side and restrooms to the other, but from this hallway you enter the main sanctuary and that’s about it. Once inside the main sanctuary, it basically resembles a Catholic church. There are rows of pews, an altar at the front of the room, two side altars and stained glass windows. Being that it is called the Holy Infant Jesus Shrine, upon walking in to the main sanctuary, my eyes almost immediately went to the Infant Jesus statue, which makes up one of the side altars. I decided to look around the rest of the shrine first and go look at the statue last. Another point of interest in the shrine is also the other side altar, which is a portrait to Our Lady of Czestochowa (the Black Madonna) [CORRECTION: Thank you to our reader below, this portrait is actually to Our Lady of Ostrabrama...but is still to the Holy Mother] and a relic of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska. Saint Faustina was canonized in 2000 and is considered to have been a mystic and visionary and is known and venerated as the Apostle of Divine Mercy. From there I took some pictures of everything and then made my way to the Infant Jesus.
The Infant Jesus we were looking at is considered to be a replica of the renowned original statue revered at the Church of San Salvatore in Onda, in Rome, Italy. This particular church has been in existence since the 12th century in Rome, but since 1835 the church has been the mother church for The Society of the Catholic Apostolate, better known as the Pallottines. The Pallotines are an order of the Roman Catholic Church that was founded by Roman priest Saint Vincent Pallotti who lived from 1795 – 1850 and today is buried in this mother church. Vincent Pallotti is known for his tireless work looking after the poor in the urban areas of Rome for most of his life. He had an intense devotion to the Holy Trinity, to the Virgin May, the spirit of St. Paul and believed that God wanted to save all people. Pallotti’s dream was to send missionaries to other parts of the world to assume their proper role in the mission of the Church and to establish a community to translate his vision into reality. His contemporaries, including the pope, considered him a saint during his active life. Although Pallotti’s vision was to unite the various factions in the Church and to encourage lay apostolic activity did not come to fruition during his lifetime, he strongly encouraged others to carry on his vision. Ultimately the Pallottines were founded to remind the Church that the lay people are essential members and that, together with clergy and those in consecrated life, we are all sent as apostles for the Church and the World. Over 100 years after his death, Pallotti was in fact deemed a patron of the Second Vatican Council for his efforts toward building unity in the Church through such practices as inviting the people of his community to worship in the Roman parishes of Eastern Catholic Churches.
This was some pretty cool history for us to learn and was well worth the visit. If you are ever traveling down Niagara Falls Boulevard and feel the need to say a prayer or play some bingo just stop in. Plus, it’s actually pretty cool to think that the Infant Jesus tradition that has existed in Europe for approximately the last 700 years is also taking place in ‘Merica!