Devotion to our Lady of Perpetual Help was already known in Brazil before 1893, the year that the first Redemptorists arrived from Holland.
From the beginning of its history, the Province of Rio de Janeiro spread devotion to the Mother of God under this title during Popular Missions as the patroness of those days of grace, and in its churches, particularly through her Archconfraternity, which brought together many of the faithful for prayer on Saturdays. In the parishes wherever they went, the Missionaries left the Marian icon as a souvenir of the Missions. This same icon visited the houses of the faithful for prayer in the family with neighbors and relatives. When, through the initiative of our North American confreres, the Perpetual Novena was brought to Brazil, our priests began to pray it with the people in all the churches at three or more scheduled hours on a given day of the week.
And we have a parish in the Forest District, on the periphery of Juiz de Fora, and a shrine in Campos dos Goytacazes, a town situated 274 km north of Rio de Janeiro, both dedicated to the Mother of Perpetual Help. Juiz de Fora was where the first Redemptorist community in Brazil was established, but the parish was only erected in 1969. In our Province, the center for devotion to the Mother of Perpetual Help is the shrine in Campos, about which I wish to give more information in this article.
The coming of the Redemptorists to Campos owes itself to a request made to the Superior General Patrick Murray by the Papal Nuncio Enrico Gasparri in 1921, arguing that it was sad to see the city in religious neglect and with a great shortage of priests: only four to serve 70 thousand inhabitants.
Having accepted the foundation, the Dutch Redemptorist Missionaries arrived in Campos in January, 1923 and set themselves up in the church of Saint Francis, cared for by the Third Order of Saint Francis. There they lived without having the liberty to act and evangelize as they wished, and precariously installed in awkward accommodations into which they squeezed five priests and two brothers. Still, the religious activity in the church was intense and they also preached a great many Missions in the nearby towns. This lasted for twenty-two years until our General Government gave the Community an order: either build their own church and convent or leave the city.
Through the press, some of the leaders at that time, such as Fr. Antonio Ribeiro do Rosario and Vincente Ferraiouli, began to alert the population about what a loss it would be to Campos, if the Redemptorists were to leave. This shook the Catholic population very much, as they saw themselves threatened with the loss of those zealous Missionaries who were very well-liked in the city and in the region. The leading Catholics aroused the faithful to collaborate in the best possible way to raise the funds needed to acquire land, then to erect a convent, and finally to build the church.
The Redemptorist Superior in Campos at that time was the heroic priest, Fr. Gabriel van Wijk, born in Holland in 1908 and sent to Brazil in 1935. He possessed a cheerful demeanor and was, at times, obstinate. A very practical man, he had a special way of asking for and obtaining the people’s collaboration. He was always surrounded by friends and admirers.
As his right-hand man, he was given Fr. Ambrosio Wijnen, also Dutch and equally disposed to strive with enthusiasm to accomplish the work.
With the help of the population and, above all, that of the Religious Associations, among whom the Catholic League of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph stood out, they brought in enough to acquire a good piece of property on which the first stone of the future Convent was laid on January 18, 1948.
A friend who was an engineer, Dr. Hugo Vocurca Filho, drew up the blueprints and accompanied the work; and he would not accept any payment for all his labor.
The collaboration of the people to raise funds manifested itself in the most varied ways: fund-raisers, fairs, cattle auctions, lists of donations, artistic teas, sale of ornamental plants, booklets of pledges, and above all, the great barbecues that the population as a whole attended. Speaking about this, the journalist Carlos de Amorim jokingly said that “the shrine had the smell of barbecue.” It was there that an incredible thing occurred, alone in the history of the construction of our churches: Fathers Gabriel, Abrosio, and Boaventura put on their overalls and worked on the job from sunup to sundown alongside the workers, as if they were one of them!
It was all to save money because that way a few workers were sufficient and the payroll was kept lighter. Other confreres also helped with painting the walls, the windows, and doors and with the electrical work. The construction of the convent cost (335 million cruzeiros), and that of the church cost (four billion) [These values are not from the time of the construction but must be equivalent to the inflation devalued New Cruzeiros under president Collor (translator Karl Esker CSsR)].
But not everything was going to turn out so marvelously. On August 17th, 1948, there was an accident with one of the workers, Francisco de Paulo, who fell from the wall and hit his head on a slab. Taken to the hospital, he was attended by Dr. Jacinto Soares, who determined that he had a fracture at the base of his skull and judged him a hopeless case. Francisco’s family was notified by telegram and telephone. Fr. Gabriel promised our Lady that he would celebrate a Mass of thanksgiving at the place if the bricklayer survived. That night the man got a little better, opening his eyes every now and then. Two days later, the doctor thought that the danger had passed and after two more days, the worker was released. This can be considered the first miracle in the Shrine.
Another even greater danger occurred on June 6, 1952. At the beginning of the afternoon, the priests heard on the radio the news that a terrible gale was laying waste to the city of Rio and heading toward the North. Shortly afterward, at 2 pm, the sky darkened in Campos. Then the order was given to all who were on the top of the construction to come down immediately. As soon as they got down, heavy rain began with gusts of wind that made boards and other material flying through the air. The damage cost (forty thousand reis), besides three months of work, but no one was injured, thanks be to God. [This monetary figure also is not correct, since at the time of the construction forty thousand reis was already converted into forty cruzeiros, which is far too low a sum. (Translator Karl Esker CSsR)]
The Convent was finished on February 12, 1950 and was blessed by the local bishop, Antonio de Castro Mayer. The community moved into the new house with twenty-two rooms, leaving forever the lodgings at the church of St. Francis
Already the following month they began laying the foundation for the construction of the church, which would have as its patroness our Lady of Perpetual Help. The construction was carried out in the same way, with the constant collaboration of the people, always encouraged by the press and by the words and examples of the Redemptorists. The same engineer, Dr. Hugo Vocura Filho, took over directing the work, once again without accepting any payment whatsoever. The church was built in gothic style with crossing arches whose lines were simple and well defined and suggested two hands folded in prayer.
After five years of intense work, the church was finished. The body of the church measured 30m by 20m and could hold a thousand people seated. The sanctuary measured 15m by 12m. The arches over the high altar were 18 meters high and in the body of the church reached 22m, with a width of 15m.
Alongside the church, they raised a beautiful tower, fifty-three meters high crowned with a cross four meters high. Seven large stained-glass windows portrayed the mysteries of Mary’s life, from her marriage with Joseph to her crowning in heaven. Behind the high altar, there was a large tile panel featuring the icon of Perpetual Help with angels and Saints Alphonsus and Clement.
The great inauguration feast was held on November 6, 1955 and the same bishop, Antonio de Castro Mayer, blessed the church. The intention of the builders was to make the church into a shrine that would attract pilgrims from many places.
From then on begins a story of intense activity inside and outside the new church, because the Fathers obtained a license for a radio station, called Radio Campista Alfonsiana, and also published a bi-monthly magazine called “Perpetual Help.”
Ten years later the Second Vatican Council came to a close in Rome. All of Brazil welcomed it with enthusiasm, especially after the Latin-American Conference of Medellin in 1968, which applied the guidelines of the Council to this Continent. When it was time to put the decisions into practice, our Church became the forefront of the pastoral renewal and the center for many pioneering activities in the fields of liturgy, catechesis, and the formation of the laity. We were ahead of the Bishop, Dom Antonio, who was reluctant to follow the new direction of the Church. With the support of the Redemptorists, the Cursillo of Christianity, the Legion of Mary, the preparation of engaged couples for marriage, the Christian Family Movement, Youth Groups, Extraordinary Ministers of Eucharistic Communion and the renewed liturgy celebrated in Portuguese all flourished.
The Patronal Feast and Novena in the month of June was growing larger each year, gaining strength with new initiatives, such as the eleven early morning processions that, braving the winter cold, departed from various points of the city in direction of the church for the first Mass of the day. The tithing ministry contributed so that there would be no lack of funds for new improvements and for making the church and its annexes more beautiful and welcoming.
This church has been the Center of devotion to the Most Blessed Virgin Mary, not just for the city of Campos, but for the whole diocese – these are the words of Bishop Joao Corso, who governed the diocese from 1990 to 1995.
This same Bishop asked the rector at that time, Fr. Jose Raimundo Vidigal, if our church had been officially declared a shrine. According to the Code of Canon Law, in order for a church to be raised to the status of a shrine, there must be a decree from the bishop and the faithful must frequent it in large numbers (Canon 1230). When he was informed that it had not, the bishop proposed the granting of this honorable title due to the participation in the celebrations of the Novena on Tuesdays and on the Patronal Feast in June. His successor, Bishop Roberto Gomes Guimaraes, confirmed this decision, and set the date May 7, 1996 to celebrate the elevation of the church to the status of a Shrine. On that day, with a large presence of the confreres of the Province, there was a beautiful party to commemorate the canonical erection of our Shrine. The people rejoiced, singing the praises of the new Shrine: “the dream of Father Gabriel, a beautiful corner of heaven,” as the hymn of the feast proclaims, which was composed by our musician Fr. Elio Athayde. At the time, the Episcopal Decree was read, which stated:
“With the present document, we approve the title of Shrine of our Lady of Perpetual Help for this already venerated church of the see city of the diocese of Campos dos Goytacazes, located at 208 Visconde de Itaborai Street. We also approve the recently composed Statutes of the Shrine.”
“We have made this decision spontaneously so that, with the guarantee of the rights of such status, there may be a strengthening of the call to piety which justifies it, such as the Perpetual Novena of our Lady of Perpetual Help, the penitential processions, the promoting of sacramental life, especially celebrating the Sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist, as is the custom in Marian Shrines.”
Now in 2015, the Shrine completes sixty years of its existence during the Jubilee year celebrating one hundred and fifty years since Blessed Pope Pius IX gave the icon of Perpetual Help to the Redemptorists. This anniversary was celebrated in Campos with an afternoon of praise and a Mass presided by the charismatic Fr. Robson de Oliveira C.Ss.R. with the presence of an enthusiastic multitude of ten thousand people.
Fr. José Raimundo Vidigal, C.Ss.R.
Translated from Portuguese by Fr. Karl Esker CSsR., Province of Campo Grande