When Father Marianus Nowakowski was ordained as a Carmelite priest in Poland in 1939, he had never heard of Skaneateles, New York nor had he envisioned that 25 years later he would be fulfilling a promise to the Blessed Virgin by building a shrine there.
The story behind the shrine of the Blessed Virgin at St. Mary's thus began in a small town in Poland at the outbreak of World War II. Father Marianus, as he is known, had returned to his hometown in August to celebrate Mass in his boyhood church and bestow his blessing as a new priest on his family and friends. At the same time, the Germans began their march into Poland.
Father Marianus hurried back to his monastery in Krakow; the Polish Army mobilized, only to be defeated in three weeks by the Germans. The priests at the Carmelite Monastery in Krakow worked tirelessly with the refugees as they continued to tend to the spiritual needs of the civilians and the soldiers.
Acting upon Hitler's orders, the German Army of Occupation finally seized the Carmelite Monastery, sealed the priests into dirty crowded boxcars, and transported the entire community to Auschwitz. The Nazi dictator so feared and hated the Church, that he was determined to eliminate the clergy. Father Marianus was to spend five years in a concentration camp, first at Auschwitz, next at Krakow, and finally at Dachau.
It has been estimated that about 2,000 Catholic priests from Poland were interned and executed. Father Marianus attributes his survival to Our Lady. On several occasions when he was in need of extraordinary strength, the Blessed Mother appeared to him in a dream. She was standing on a pedestal, a pedestal on a mound of green grass.
The first time she appeared to him was in the box car on the way to the concentration camp. The final time was at Dachau, where after five years of seemingly unendurable conditions, Father's health broke down.
As the Allied forces pushed nearer and nearer, the Nazis not only kept the gas chambers and furnaces going at full speed, but they stepped up the proceedings, trying to liquidate as many prisoners as possible before they could be liberated.
Father Marianus learned from a German soldier that orders had come to liquidate all the prisoners immediately. During a short period of waiting, Our Lady again appeared to Father Marianus in a dream, seemingly indicating that she was going to rescue him.
Then, on April 29, 1945, about an hour before Father's scheduled execution, 13 Americans, 11 soldiers, a Catholic chaplain and an army nurse, appeared at the gate of Dachau. The main army was on the way, soon to discover the cruelty, the forced labor and the terrible deaths suffered by the inmates there.
Officially freed on the first day of the month of May, Father eventually came to the United States and was assigned to Whitefriars, the Carmelite Monastery in Auburn, New York. .
Sometime during those terrible five years, Father, who was also a stone mason, resolved that if he were spared, he would build a shrine to thank and honor the Lady of his dreams.
The first shrine he built was at Whitefriars. Father McMahon, Pastor of St. Mary's of the Lake and also a Carmelite, saw this shrine and asked him to build a similar shrine for his congregation.
Father John Heaggerty, the assistant priest at St. Mary's at the time, played a large part in the building of the shrine. Father Marianus could not speak English. The only way they communicated was in Latin. Once the foundation was poured, he directed them how to build it.
John Dougherty dug the hole and then loaned them his truck to pick up the stones. High school boys from St. Mary’s went out into the countryside with Fr. Heaggerty after school to gather the fieldstone that was used in the building of the shrine. Some of the 7 to 10 boys who helped were: Michael Glowacki, Peter Major, Larry Ryder, Ronald Coleman and Dick Wilson. William Kuhl worked on the landscaping.
Started in the summer of 1954, a Marian Year, the shrine was completed the following year. The statue of the Blessed Virgin was donated by Joseph T. Mooney in memory of his sister, Veronica Mooney Strahl, both former residents of Skaneateles Falls.
The shrine and the statue were blessed by Father McMahon on Sunday, September 8, the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Father Paschal of Auburn assisted in the reciting of the Litany of the Blessed Virgin. Hymns for the Benediction of the Most Blessed Sacrament were sung by the children present, under the direction of the Sisters of St. Francis of Syracuse.
During the month of October of that year, the Rosary was recited there by the Young Ladies Sodality every evening. The shrine was very impressive at night when the flood lights were shining on it. .
Father Marianus went on to build one more shrine, at New York Mills, near Utica. Of the shrine at St. Mary's, he said, "This shrine was built out of gratitude to the Blessed Mother for the liberation of my life from the concentration camp." The only unfulfilled wish he had was to have a plaque erected stating that the shrine was dedicated to Our Lady.