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The Shrine at the Casa

1-18-times-pastOur Lady of Guadalupe is the patron saint of Mexico, of the Americas and of the Catholic Diocese of Phoenix. The mosaic being dedicated was erected by the Franciscan Renewal Center (the Casa de Paz y Bien) in 1954 on the center property at Lincoln Drive between Mummy and Camelback mountains.

The priests are Father Owen de Silva, the Casa’s founder, and Father Luigi Sciocheti, Italian expatriate and noted artist. The shrine itself was the Casa’s tribute to St. Mary, during the Marian Year of 1954.

The image of Our Lady of Guadalupe goes back to 1531 in Mexico, 10 years after the Spanish Conquest, when renewed war between the Aztecs and their conquerors seemed likely.

The Blessed Virgin is said to have appeared to Juan Diego, a poor Aztec Christian, and asked to have a shrine built in her honor on a hill sacred to Aztec gods. As a sign for the bishop, Our Lady directed Juan Diego to wrap some roses, which were blooming even though it was winter, in a cloak. When he opened his cloak to present the roses, witnesses saw imprinted on it the miraculous image of Our Lady. The bishop built the church, and Indians by the millions converted to Catholicism, blending the Spanish and Aztec cultures. The cloak with its image is preserved to this day in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, near Mexico City.

Father Owen de Silva was instrumental in getting the shrine built at the Casa. He was assigned to St. Mary’s Church in Phoenix in the 1930s, and became a choir director while teaching at St. Mary’s High School and directing the Orpheus Male Chorus.

He bought property on Lincoln Drive in 1951, and opened the Casa de Paz y Bien on January 14, 1952. He hoped to provide laymen with a place of spiritual retreat in the Franciscan tradition and in “a desert place.”  The following month, the Casa sponsored the world’s first married couples retreat, which led indirectly to the shrine.

The artistically sophisticated Father Owen de Silva valued excellence in art. He had opened several retreat houses in California, where Father Luigi Sciocheti of San Francisco, one of the world’s greatest religious ceramicists working in the Della Robbia style, had already done work for him.  Father Owen wanted a piece for the Casa.

Father Sciocheti had fled Mussolini’s Italy in the early 1930s and practiced his priestly vocation in the United States while working on religious art on the side.

In retirement, he lived in San Francisco. There he had a studio and a small shop where people could buy his work. He believed deeply that the average man should be able to afford fine religious art, so he charged only for materials that went into his work.

He charged a small amount for commissioned works, but even that was too much for the Casa. It fell to those attending the first married couples retreat, the “LA group” headed by Frank Longo and John Gadeschi to raise the money for the shrine.

Father Sciocheti did the work in San Francisco, and on February 1, 1954, two Franciscans, Brothers Kevin and Gregory, drove the Casa’s truck to California to pick it up.

Brother Kevin, who now lives in the Friary of St. Mary’s Basilica, remembers it well – he burned out the truck’s transmission on the way back.

The shrine was composed of 400 numbered pieces, which had to be assembled at the Casa in time for the dedication to take place during the LA group’s yearly retreat. They didn’t quite get done in time. In the photograph, the stone facing is missing. Mrs. Tang Shing, the first Chinese woman born in Arizona, donated plants to start Mary’s Garden, and Roy Heyne donated 14,000 bricks to build a wall surrounding the shrine.

Father Sciocheti’s work became well known in Catholic Phoenix during the 1950s. Besides the Guadalupe shrine, he also created the 14 Stations of the Cross in the Casa’s courtyard. Perhaps more familiar to the general public are his Six Shrines of St. Francis – Love, Pardon, Faith, Hope, Light and Joy – that stand in St. Francis Cemetery on 48th Street.  Those were commissioned by Father Victor Bucher, a close friend of Father Owen, who directed the cemetery until 1964.

This Past Times article was originally published on November 2, 2001.

Photo courtesy Franciscan Renewal Center; research by Gary Weiand. ©Arizona Capitol Times.

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