Since 1948, Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Bowmansville has been the home of one of the first-ever statues of Our Lady of Fatima, sculpted to depict the Virgin Mary as she appeared to the three shepherd children, Lúcia dos Santos and her cousins, Francisco and Jacinta Marto, in Portugal in 1917. As the parish was preparing for the centennial anniversary celebrations to end, Father Robert Zilliox, pastor of Sacred Heart of Jesus, spoke about the history of the statue and how it came to Bowmansville.
Father Zilliox, who was assigned to Sacred Heart last year, said when he first arrived, he had heard of the statue and knew some basic things about it, but did not fully realize its significance. The statue was one that famous Portugese sculptor José Ferreira Thedim made, based on dos Santos' description.
"I'd heard some histories about it going back to the 1940s and Father Earl Kleis, who was pastor at the time," Father Zilliox said. "Obviously, with the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the apparitions in Fatima, and because of the history of the statue, the parish decided to celebrate the six apparitions. Starting back in May, on the 13th of every month, we would have a special celebration, rosary and a Mass."
At 7 p.m. on Oct. 13, the parish will hold the last of these events. In addition to the Masses, parishioners have been holding First Friday and First Saturday events, beginning at 8:30 a.m., with adoration being held overnight as well. All of these have given parishioners, pilgrims and other community members a chance to see for themselves a piece of local history associated with a strong devotion in the Church.
In his research, Father Zilliox did some reading and found associated materials, but he wanted to be able to hear more firsthand. "I had heard the history of the statue, but I wanted to see if I could reach out to some kind of expert, or somebody who would serve as an expert that I could use for some verification of the history as I understood it," Father Zilliox said. "I think it goes back to the spring of 1916, when the children were first visited by the angel, who taught the great value of intercessory prayer."
This led to the six apparitions, taking place over a period of six months, from May to October in 1917. Several decades later, Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish became the home of a prototype for the original International Pilgrim Virgin Statue in Fatima, Portugal, and it was again used as a model for the two pilgrim statues. Father Kleis decided to purchase this statue that Bishop Dom José Alves Correia da Silva blessed before it left his country. Bishop John Joseph O'Hara was present for the statue's crowning in 1948.
In his research, Father Zilliox reached out to E. William Sockey III, custodian for the National Pilgrim Virgin Statue of the United States in the World Apostolate of Fatima. "I reached out to him, and I asked him to come see the statue. I called him on a Friday night and I explained to him the history of the statue, and he said, 'I have to come and see it,'" he recalled. "He showed up on Saturday. I met him at the church at about 8:30 or so. I said, 'Okay, Bill, this is the statue.' His eyes got really wide. It was amazing."
After Father Zilliox sent Sockey newspaper articles and other historical documents that he could find, he received confirmation. "His response back to me was basically this: 'The documentation you sent me was excellent. Our research indicates that José Thedim worked on your statue of the Pilgrim Virgin at the same time he was creating the first of what became the International Pilgrim Virgin statues. That would have been in 1946 or earlier. The statue exhibits the same details learned from Sister Lúcia around 1946, the golden globe around her neck instead of the golden tassel on the original statue, and the less ornate mantle.'"
According to Father Zilliox, Sockey went on to say that the statue looks exactly like the Pilgrim Virgin statues, except for the star on the one at Sacred Heart Parish, which has eight points, while the rest of the statues' stars have only five points. Father Zilliox noted that this was because Thedim sculpted the statue with his own vision that differed from what Sister Lúcia had seen, and she advised him on this.
"On the second statue, he sculpted it with a much less ornate mantle. He got rid of the tassel and inserted a globe, but he kept the eight-point star as his artistic mark. That is the statue that currently resides at Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish," added Father Zilliox, quoting Sockey. "The star indicates that it was placed on the statue before Thedim was told by Sister Lúcia that it should have only five points."
Sockey's letter to Father Zilliox concluded, "Therefore, at this point I think your bishop should feel comfortable with the position that the statue of Our Lady of Fatima at Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Bowmansville, Diocese of Buffalo, is an authentic creation of José Thedim, that it was created at the same time that Thedim was creating the first International Pilgrim Virgin in 1946, with the assistance of Sister Lúcia, and that it is probably the working model of the International Pilgrim Virgin, as claimed."