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Sister's dream of Guadalupe shrine to be realized in South Philly
Catholic News Service

PHILADELPHIA — Religious shrines or art in the public places are relatively rare in the United States but quite common in Europe, South America and other areas that have a predominantly Catholic culture.

But if all goes as expected, a shrine honoring Our Lady of Guadalupe is coming to a street corner in South Philadelphia.

Once in place, the shrine will fulfill a dream of Sister Paula Bierschmitt, a member of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, who died in September. The shrine will include a bronze image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of the Americas, as she appeared on the tilma, or cloak, of St. Juan Diego in 16th-century Mexico.

Sister Paula was an artist and the founder of the American Academy of Sacred Arts in South Philadelphia in 1993. Her dream grew out of a 2008 visit to Mount St. Mary's University in Emmitsburg, Md., where she snapped a picture of a mosaic in a prayer garden with an old-fashioned box camera.

After having the film developed, Sister Paula was astonished to find a brilliant image of Our Lady of Guadalupe superimposed on the shrine rather than the mosaic image she photographed.

When neither Sister Paula nor professional photographers could give a reasonable explanation, she took it as a sign that she should make it her mission to promote devotion to Mary and Our Lady of Guadalupe in particular.

Sister Paula's inner voice told her that she, like Juan Diego, should have a shrine erected. But she was hesitant to act at first.

It was not until Pentecost 2010, as she was walking along Broad Street after Mass, that her voice told her this was where the shrine should be. She happened to be in front of the Carto Funeral Home. She soon approached owner Nunzio Carto and explained her mission. He enthusiastically agreed.

Sister Paula reached out to friends who were backers of the sacred art academy to help plan the shrine. She also engaged an ecclesiastical sculptor to design and craft it.

Although Sister Paula did not live to see the shrine completed, her friends are determined to see the project through.

"We are sending a mass mailing of 1,500 to 1,600 to her supporters," said Bill Maffucci, a real estate attorney who worked with Sister Paula as she established the art academy.

"She became a close friend and a spiritual adviser to me. She helped me with a lot of things," he said in an interview with CatholicPhilly.com, the news website of the Philadelphia Archdiocese. "Now we are focusing on the project and hope to have the shrine in place when Pope Francis arrives next year. We think it will cost about $200,000, but that is a small cost."

Maffucci's comment about the pope arriving "next year" was a reference to the expectation that Pope Francis will come to Philadelphia in September 2015 to attend the last day of the World Meeting of Families, but there has been no official confirmation the pope will be there.

Steven Kilpatrick, a Cherry Hill, N.J., sculptor, was selected by Sister Paula to design the shrine. Kilpatrick has executed sacred art for churches and shrines around the country as well as in Europe, South America and Africa.

"I knew her well; she was an exemplar and a brilliant artist and I considered her saintly," he said.

To create the model for the sculpture, Kilpatrick obtained a high-resolution digital image of St. Juan Diego's tilma. The statue itself, first formed in clay, will be cast in molten bronze through the ancient method of lost wax, with a modern touch: the use of colors in the bronze.

"It will be exactly as seen on the tilma," he said.

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