The Congrega Society, a group honoring the Blessed Mother, celebrated this year's second biannual Mass at St. Lawrence Church in Buffalo on Sept. 6.
The Congrega Society is a volunteer-based prayer and worship society, consisting of both members of St. Lawrence Parish and other parishes in Buffalo and Western New York, based in their mutual devotion to the Mother of God. Activities include prayer and community service. For a small fee of $5 per year, anyone may become members and attend these two Masses, with free breakfasts. The Masses are held on the Saturday closest to Sept. 8, when the Catholic Church says is the Blessed Mother's birthdate, and near the last Saturday in April, when the devotion to the Crowned Virgin is celebrated.
"We pray for people. We pray for our deceased members. We pray for things that are going on in the area," said Mary Jean Steinhauser, who manages the society's advertising and website. "Every time we get together, we pray for whatever intentions or circumstances. We just have a strong love for Our Lady, and this, as far as we know, is one of the oldest devotions to her in existence, at least that we know of in Europe. We have somewhere around 50 members. People come and go."
The Masses feature a family atmosphere with instruments and a chorus, in which both Steinhauser and Mary Pachla, the president of Buffalo's Congrega Society, participate. The Mass is all in English, with at least one song in Latin and a final song in Italian, which is connected with the devotion.
"They're beautiful prayers to Our Lady. There's a very special prayer specifically to the Crowned Virgin, which is followed by the Litany of Our Lady, which we say in unison," Pachla said. "My feeling is, it's a beautiful, spiritual organization that is really very prayerful and very tied in to this very, very old, but devout, devotion. My understanding is that it's the oldest devotion to Our Lady that we know of."
St. Lawrence is one of only two churches in the world with a Congrega Society, the other of which is in Abruzzo, Italy. Both feature a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary as a centerpiece, and the statue in Buffalo is a faithful Italian reproduction of the original, which dates back to the 11th century.
"That, in itself, that it's lasted that long is pretty amazing, because it's made of poplar wood, and usually that stuff deteriorates over time," Steinhauser said of the original statue. "It's very mountainous, and it's hard to get to. A lot of these devotions to Our Lady, throughout the world, are devotions where people take pilgrimages to these places ... The devotion itself is to the Crowned Virgin."
This representation of the Crowned Virgin is also called the "Black Madonna," due to the statue's dark color. Steinhauser said this resulted from the oxidation of the poplar wood, which carbonized over time and darkened the wood. Although the statue was restored within the past several years to its original brown color, Steinhauser said those who maintain the statue generally avoid this.
"[The statue] is very old, and it's amazing they still have it," Steinhauser said. "At one time, it was said that the sculptor that created these statues created seven of them, and they went all over the world, to whatever sections of the world wanted or needed them, and this is the only one that's left."
The Congrega Society came to the United States from Italy in 1920, when a woman named Cora Saviola was miraculously cured of tuberculosis, which she attributed to her prayers to the Virgin Mary. In 1752, the Vatican officially ratified its approval for the society, which is when Congrega was officially named. In 2010, the Congrega Society celebrated its 90th anniversary in Buffalo.
Pachla said the society has been successful in having new members come from different parishes as the result of Steinhauser's advertisements and promotion. Although Pachla was born in St. Lawrence Parish and attended Masses there from the time she was a young child, and had also seen the statue at Church and prayed to it, she did not come to understand its full significance until her adulthood.
"I had no idea that there was a connection with Italy and, as I found out as an adult, the current leaders of the organizations, at that time, reached out to me and to Mary Jean, because they knew they wanted to get younger women involved, as they were aging," Pachla said. "They actually provided the challenge to Mary Jean and to myself to take on the leadership. When that happened, I found out about the history of it, only as an adult, and I was astounded by the connections with my family because both of my grandmothers were very devoted to Our Lady. They called her 'Madonna Nera,' which is the 'Black Madonna.'"
According to Pachla, the Congrega Society is a way for the community to link their families and ethnic heritage while also enjoying spiritual benefits of prayer in unison. Through their work, the society benefits the community by supporting outreach programs and praying for the parish and its leaders, while also maintaining a presence as leaders for young people in the area with reverence for the Crowned Virgin.
"I don't like to make people lose hope, but there's been a lot of abandonment in the city of Buffalo," Steinhauser commented. "St. Lawrence, as a saint, died literally protecting and defending poor people. St. Lawrence is not known for, 'I'm going to go with the rich.' That's not him. Any time you can help people, give them a hand up. We have a lot of ministries right now because they're necessary."