During the week after the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (Dec 8) in 1923, the Franciscan Fathers of The Holy Cross Commissariat bought a farm named Oakdale from Mrs. Barnes for $225 an acre. The farm lay east of the village of Lemont. She herself and her children remained living in the farmhouse as renters until the following April.
The Commissariat of the Holy Cross, whose members were Croatian, Slovak and Slovenian Fathers and Brothers, was founded in 1912 by Fr. Casmir Zakrajšek as an American part of the Province of the Holy Cross in Slovenia. He was named the superior, the Commissary Provincial. In 1923 Father Casmir was pastor of St. Stephen's in Chicago, and the Commissary Provincial was Fr. Hugo Bren. These two men, with lay helpers, had been scouting for some time for a location for a projected seminary and monastery. They found Oakdale, and were pleased by the location.
In April, after Mrs. Barnes and her children moved out, Bro. Stephen Mihelič came to live in the farmhouse. Soon Fr. Blanko Kavčič joined him. They made some repairs around the place, including the making and placing of a temporary altar in one of the rooms, thus establishing a temporary chapel. Fr. Hugo Bren moved to the farm on May 24, 1924; till then he had been living in St. Stephen's rectory. (May 24 is the feast of Mary, Help of Christians, in Slovenian: Marija Pomagaj)
Plans were made for a contractor to build a wooden church or chapel, with adjoining wooden buildings as living and working quarters. On Labor Day, Sept. 2, 1924, Msgr. Bobal, a Czech priest of the Chicago Archdiocese, blessed the corner stone. A large number of Slovenian and Slovak people from Chicago and Joliet were present, as were people and officials from the village of Lemont. Two of the Lemont Catholic pastors of St. Patrick's and St. Cyril & Methodius also spoke
of St. Patrick's and St. Cyril & Methodius also spoke at the ceremonies. The eight student Franciscans of the Commissariat, who were studying theology at St. Bonaventure University in Olean, N.Y were also present, since Fr. Hugo wanted the people to see the future priests of the Commissariat.
Both Fr. Casmir and Fr. Hugo had a great devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, so it was not surprising that plans were made to rename Oakdale as St. Mary's Hill in English, Ameriške Brezje in Slovenian. During the course of the years, Hill was dropped from the name and the place remains as St. Mary's. The Slovenians still call it Ameriške Brezje.
In the Alpine countryside of northern Slovenia there stands a small village named Brezje. The village church, St. Vitus, has existed in one form or another for centuries. In late 18th century years a pastor named Father Ažbe built a chapel onto the church in which he set up a shrine to Mary Help of Christians, and placed therein a copy of painting he had brought with him when he studied in Innsbruck. The people of the neighboring hamlets and villages began coming to the shrine. When the lands thereabout were occupied by the French under Napoleon, a Slovenian artist named Leopold Layer (1752-1828) used his talents to make counterfeit money. He and his brother were caught and jailed. After a peace treaty was signed with Austria, the French left, Layer was released. While in prison, he had made a vow to paint the chapel in Brezje if he were freed. In 1814 he fulfilled his vow, not only painting and decorating chapel walls, but also painting a new version of Mary, Help of Christians, a painting which became the center of more than local devotion, especially when reports of healings began to circulate in Slovenia. Today this shrine in Brezje is one of the national pilgrimage centers of the country.
Fr. Hugo wrote in the Ave Maria magazine that he had spent two years in Brezje, recuperating from illness and regaining his strength. It was a peaceful time living near Marija Pomagaj. Now he wanted Marija Pomagaj to come to Lemont. He petitioned his confrere, Fr. Blaž Farčnik, to paint a copy and send it to the United States.
Fr. Blaž Farčnik, O.F.M. (1879-1945), was academically trained in artistry and painting, and had made his studies in Florence, Italy. He had already designed some covers for the Ave Maria magazine, a publication founded by Fr. Casimir in 1909 for the American Slovenians. His work may also be found in various churches in Slovenia and Croatia.
And so he made a copy, which was touched formally to the original in Brezje, before it was shipped to the United State. Fr. John Capistran arrived in Lemont from Sveta Gora, Slovenia, on October 1st, 1924, bringing with him Farčnik's painting and also two Carniolian queen bees.
After his arrival, Fr. John was named local superior, and de facto foreman of those already living here, as they continued to work building and shaping the premises for seminary and college purposes. With the queen bees he established a colony of bee hives, so much so that in four or five years after his arrival, the first Honey Picnic pilgrimage was held at St. Mary's. On December 1st, 1924, the painting of Maria Pomagaj was officially placed on the altar of the temporary chapel and blessed by Fr. John. Until his death in 1954, Fr. John was the beekeeper and patron of the yearly Honey Picnic pilgrimages.
WOODEN CHURCH AND MONASTERY
The Franciscan community was growing. Some priests and lay brothers were transferred from parishes were they were serving, the eight students arrived as permanent residents, and lay candidates also came. Under the leadership of Fr. John and Fr. Hugo, this group of men helped to finish the work of furnishing and preparing the premises, after the contractor's men had erected the wooden church and adjoining buildings. On May 24, 1925 the painting of Marija Pomagaj was installed in the new church, on a side altar to the left of the main altar, as one stood facing the altar from the body of the church.
George Cardinal Mundelein, Archbishop of Chicago, was scheduled to come for the Solemn Blessing of the (temporary) church and monastery. Since he was detained, he delegated Rt. Rev. Msgr Rempe from Chicago to bless the buildings and celebrate the Solemn High Mass. As previously at the corner- stone blessing, a large crowd attended, Slovenians and Slovaks and other ethnics, as well as clergy, officials and people from the village of Lemont. This took place on June 14, 1925.
An English program and ad booklet was published for the occasion. Among other facts, mention was made that the Franciscan Fathers and Brothers of the Commissariat were serving in eleven parishes on the East Coast and in Chicago (four in the latter). The Fathers had preached about 500 parish missions to date, Fr. Casimir alone had given 238 Slovak and Slovenian Missions. The following September 8, classes officially began at St. Mary's Seminary in Lemont.
CROWNING OF MARIJA POMAGAJ
The 28th International Eucharistic Congress, hosted by Cardinal Mundelein, was celebrated at various locations in Chicago and vicinity from June 20-24, 1926. Delegations of clergy and lay people came from many parts of the Catholic world, including from Slovenia. Most Rev. Anton Bonaventura Jeglič, Bishop from Ljubljana came,
accompanied by the Franciscan Provincial, Fr. Regalat Čebulj and other clergy. The Lemont Franciscans invited the Bishop to come and crown Lemont's Marija Pomagaj after the congress ended. After his acceptance, the great event was scheduled for Sunday, June 27, 1926.
CELEBRATION OF THE CROWNING
On the hill where there was a pond fed by spring waters (the present lake Bled by the Marian grotto in Baraga park) the friars and men built a wooden structure 24 feet by 40 feet, with an opening in the middle of one long side, the width of an altar, so the Mass could be celebrated under a roof and the people could stand or sit outside and be able to see the proceedings. The crowning of Mary and Jesus would take place in this building.
On Saturday evening, June 26, the following clergy arrived: Bishop Jeglič, Fr. Regalat, Rev V. Kragl from Fram near Maribor in Slovenia, and Rev Cyril Zupan, O.S.B., from Pueblo, Colorado. The following morning more clergy showed up: Very Rev. Michael Opeka, Cathedral Canon from Ljubljana, Rev. Ivan Štrajhar, pastor in Borovnica, Slovenia, Rev. Simon Lampe, O.S.B., Indian missionary in red Lake, Minnesota, Rev. John Smoley, pastor in Calis, North Dakota, and Rev Casimir Zakrajšek, pastor of St. Stephen's and once again the Commissary Provincial. After Mass had started, Rev. John Plevnik of St. Joseph's in Joliet and many of his parishioners also arrived.
Reports emphasized that the weather was very beautiful. The ceremonies began with a procession from the church to the building on the hill, led by men carrying various society and altar banners. The med and boys came next, followed by the St. Stephen’s church choir, named Adria and directed by Mr. Ivan Račič. Next came the clergy, followed by four vested deacons carrying the paintings of Marija Pomagaj. The bishop and his escort came next, with the women and girls as the tail of the procession. All prayed and recited the Rosary as the choir also sang, probably between the decades of the rosary.
Bishop Jeglič began the celebration of Pontifical Solemn High Mass. After the reading of the Gospel, he gave the sermon. Of course, the main topic centered on Mary Help of Christians, on Marija Pomagaj. In 1907 he had crowned the original painting in Brezje, Slovenia; now he would crown the Mother and Child in the copy in Ameriške Brezje. On both occasions, the same artisan, Mr. Kregar of Ljubljana, made the crowns.
The high point of the day was at hand. The Bishop ended his sermon. He blessed the crowns, and then placed them on the heads of Mary and the Baby Jesus on the painting.
Mass continued to its conclusion. After Mass, Fr. Casimir spoke in Slovenian, Slovak and English. The procession formed again and returned to the church, where the vested deacons placed the painting of Marija Pomagaj in its place on the side altar.
After lunch and the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, Bishop also blessed a painting picturing the death of St. Joseph, painted by John Gosar of Betlehem, Pa, and donated by him. Various priests and some lay leaders gave speeches on the hill in the afternoon.
When the new brick seminary building was completed in 1939, the painting of Marija Pomagaj was placed above the main altar of the seminary chapel, where it remains to this day. Recently Jaka Praprotnik took the painting down and Lilijan Brulc, an artist from Joliet, restored the painting to its original brilliance. Jaka told us the date 1924 was found on the back of the picture. Marija Pomagaj, prosi za nas, Mary, Our Lady of Brezje, pray for us.