Fr. Chris Piasta, chaplain at the JFK and LaGuardia airports in New York, stands behind the Our Lady of Loreto statue flanked by the Alitalia flight crew. Photo courtesy Fr. Chris Piasta

Our Lady of Loreto answers a prayer

  • February 6, 2020

It took a flight of faith, but after jumping through all the necessary hoops, the statue of Our Lady of Loreto finally made it to Toronto.

Updated 2020-02-14

It’s not the main statue — recommissioned after fire destroyed the original at the Holy House of Loreto in Italy and installed on the altar at the basilica in Loreto — but the only internationally-travelling one of three (the others only visit airports and military bases in Italy). It made its way to Toronto and was on display at the chapel at Pearson International Airport from Feb. 4-11.

“She’s taken flight to come here and be with us,” said airport chaplain Fr. John Mullins.

The visit came at an opportune time, as this year has been declared the year of jubilee for air travellers. The Madonna of Loreto is the patron saint of air travellers and pilots, declared by Pope Benedict XV in 1920. During the jubilee, airport chapels have received a special blessing from the Loreto Shrine and Pope Francis to be pilgrim sites, and visitors will receive a plenary indulgence.

It wasn’t an easy task for the Black Madonna statue to make its way to Toronto. 

“Oh my gosh, for her to get here it was an answer to prayer, it really was for it to get to Toronto,” said Mullins.

There was some uncertainty that it would make its way and Mullins counted on his counterpart in New York, Fr. Chris Piasta, chaplain at Our Lady of the Skies Chapel at JFK and LaGuardia airports, to make arrangements for its arrival at Pearson.

Piasta only found out at the last second that the Madonna would be coming to New York, said Mullins, “So I said to him I’ll have to piggyback on to you” to bring the statue to Toronto. It called for some quick thinking and plenty of legwork to navigate through the bureaucracy with the airport, airlines and border services, as well as purchasing insurance to cover the statue.

After all was said and done, the statue made of Lebanese cedar — like the original destroyed by fire a century ago — arrived late Feb. 3 on a flight from New York and was set up in the chapel at Terminal 1. By Mullins’ reaction, it all seems to have been worthwhile.

“The statue is magnificent,” he said. “Italians at their best. It’s beautiful.”

The statue’s permanent home is at what is commonly called the Holy House of Loreto, which tradition says is the house in Nazareth where the Virgin Mary was born and raised. It’s also where Jesus spent His first 30 years. Tradition also says the house was miraculously scooped up by a band of angels to protect it from Muslim soldiers just before the final expulsion of the Christian Crusaders from the Holy Land. It is said to have first been taken by the angels to Dalmatia in modern-day Croatia in 1291 and in 1294 transported again to Loreto across the Adriatic Sea. A magnificent basilica has since been built around the house and for centuries it has been a destination for Marian pilgrims.

It’s a beautiful story that resonates with Mullins.

“It is a flight of faith (that) draws you into the ordinary holiness of the life of Nazareth, that’s the beauty of it,” he said.

The story is also not unlike how angels protect air travellers, said Mullins. There’s the visible reality — the pilot and air crew, ground crew, ticket agents, etc. — that makes it possible for travellers to be whisked away to a destination thousands of kilometres away, but “there’s the invisible realities, the angels that are guiding these planes and guiding these people to their destinations.” 

Travellers and airport employees are the main visitors to the chapel, one of two at Canada’s busiest airport. Almost 200,000 travellers go through the airport each day and it employs about 50,000 people, said Mullins. The Pearson chaplaincy hosted the statue at the invitation of the Rome airport chaplain.

For those who visited, Mullins hadcopies of the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which is one of six litanies approved for public recitation by the Catholic Church. It’s one of Mullins personal favourites, one he recited with his family as a child. The family also took part in parish processions with statues of the Virgin.

Mullins had hoped he’d be able to tour some Toronto parishes with the statue but all the uncertainty surrounding its arrival proved to be too much to allow for this.

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