When the Begum built the church she wished to honour Mary, the Mother of Jesus,
by dedicating the church to her. But she never could have dreamt that her church
would honour Mary in the way it does today. Today the church is a centre of Marian
devotion. It enshrines the Sacred Image of Our Lady of Graces, which Pope John XXIII,
in his decree raising the church to a Basilica, calls, ``by far the most illustrious
ornament in the church.''
The idea of a Shrine to our Lady was considered seriously for the first time during
the Marian year of 1954. Pilgrimages were organised to this church dedicated to
Our Lady to celebrate the first centenary of the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception.
Already in 1950, to celebrate the Dogma of the Assumption of Mary, pilgrimates had
been made to this Marian church. The people by these pilgrimages, had shown that
they considered this church as Mary's own, where they would come when they wished
to honour her in a special way. So why not respond to this desire and make the church
into a shrine ?
In 1955, when the then co-adjutor Archbishop of Agra, Most Rev. J.B. Evangelisti,
O.F.M. (Cap), was in Italy, he had occasion to speak to the inhabitants of Leghorn,
a town in the province of Tuscany. Near Leghorn, on the hill of Montenero, is the
famous shrine of Our Lady of Graces. His Graces expressed the desire to have a copy
of that miraculous Image of their Madonna for his church at Sardhana. The people
responded enthusiastically and got a good painter to do the job. The picture is
painted on wood in well chosen and inspiring colours. Our Lady is depicted seated,
holding Jesus on her knee. With His right hand Jesus clings to His Mother, while
with His left He holds a string, tied to the leg of a bird, which rests on Mary's
arm. The bird represents the soul. The meaning is obvious : `To Jesus through Mary'.
The soul that seeks Mary comes closer to Jesus. Devotion to the Mother ensures union
with the Son. As Jesus came to us through Mary, so he wants us to come to Him through
Her. The title, Our Lady of Graces, is the short form of ``Our Lady Mediatrix of
all graces.'' This title simply means that as Mary cooperated in the Redemptive
work of Her Son, by preparing and giving Him His body for sacrifice, and assisting
at the Sacrifice of the Cross, so now she assists in the distribution of the fruits
of His Incarnation and death. At Christmas she presented Him in His Flesh to us;
now she presents Him in His graces to us.
The people of Leghorn themselves donated two gold crowns that were affixed to the
picture. These were stolen in 1972.
On receiving this precious gift, His Grace took it with him when he went for an
audience with the saintly Pope Pius XII on 25th September 1955, and laid before
the Pontiff his plan of starting a shrine in northern India. The Pope most willingly
approved of the idea. He venerated the Image and blessed it, expressing his conviction
that the Blessed Virgin would do great things for the people of India. The Archbishop
then took the Sacred Image to St. Padre Pio, the stigmatist, blessed with five wounds
similar to the wounds of Our Lord, who was beatified in 1999. Father Pio rejoiced
at the Archbishop's plan. He blessed the Image and kissed it devoutly, promising
to pray to Our Lady to be generous with her children in India.
In 1956 His Grace was appointed Bishop of the new diocese of Meerut. He fixed the
solemn opening of the shrine for 7th November 1957.
That was a great day in the history of the church of Sardhana. A procession of buses,
cars and motor-cycles escorted the Image from Meerut, where it had been venerated
at the Cathedral. At about 500 yards from the church of Sardhana, a procession on
foot was formed, and the Archbishop and priests in Sacred vestments took the Image
in procession to the church. The image was placed in the niche in the side chapel
on the left which had been specially prepared to receive it. God seemed to set the
seal of His approval on the whole undertaking when on this very day of the inauguration,
a child from Ghaziabad given up by the doctors, was instantly cured when he was
touched to the Sacred Image.
The annual pilgrimage to this Marian Shrine takes place on the second sunday of
November in which thousands participate. But every day, people come singly or in
groups, to ask Mary for favours or to thank her for those received; or just to venerate
her in a place she has chosen for her own. There is a long list of favours received
and cures attributed to her intercession.
The Holy See has followed the development of the Shrine with interest. In 1960 Pope
John XXIII presented to the Shrine a big size cierge, a beautifully worked candle,
so that, to use his own words, ``We may give expression of Our devotion towards
the Mother of God and show Our love for the Catholics of India''.
On 19th December 1961, this same Pope raised the Church, mainly because of the shrine,
to the dignity of a Minor Basilica. The Shrine runs a monthly Bulletin under the
title of Our Lady of Graces in Hindi.
A large Pilgrims House that can accommodate some 40 people was built in 1997. Now
pilgrims from far have a place to stay near the Shrine.