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GILLIS: The National Shrine of Our Lady of La Salette – It’s More Than Christmas Lights

"This is what Christmas is all about - people coming together here at La Salette to experience the spirit of Christmas," said Brother Bob Russell, M.S.

Editor's note: The following was submitted for publication by Robert Gillis.

“We talk about a world that’s in turmoil.  But here at the National Shrine of Our Lady of La Salette, we see so many families with children ...  their concept of Christmas...  this is what Christmas is all about -- people coming together here at La Salette to experience the spirit of Christmas.” -- Brother Bob Russell, M.S., Shrine Director. 

The National Shrine of Our Lady of La Salette in Attleboro has something of an identity problem. Either you know it well or not at all, there is no in-between. 

On one hand, La Salette is well known to many people around the world as a destination for pilgrimages and to more local residents for masses and other religious devotional services, workshops and programs.

And of course, La Salette is renowned as the place with all the Christmas lights. 

On the other hand, many people drive by La Salette having no idea what it even is or why it is there; some think they need to belong to a certain religion to visit, or that it’s just “some church.”

Now, the initial impetus for this article was a feature about La Salette’s Christmas lights and their drive to go all LED.  But it became much more than that.  In my research and interviews for this piece, La Salette surprised even me – and I thought I knew it. 

La Salette offers far more than anyone can imagine. At its core, it is a place of serenity, love, community, faith and healing. There, you will find a group of compassionate and kind staff members who will lend an ear, help you, or just smile as you enjoy the lovely holy grounds. 

La Salette is a hidden treasure and source of hope for which my wife Sue and I share a great love. She’s been visiting since she was about 12; our visits as a couple started in 1990 and have evolved into visits during all seasons to a place that occupies a special place in our hearts. 

It is my sincere hope that this article will open your eyes and enlighten you to come and experience what we have been experiencing at La Salette -- a place of hope. 

I hope you will see that La Salette is truly a place for everyone to visit -- your religion and faith (or lack of it) makes no difference. I encourage everyone to visit for the peace and serenity and healing you will get by just walking in the holy grounds, and please note, there is no entrance fee; it’s free all year-round. 

“La Salette – it’s not just Christmas lights.” — Father Richard Delisle, M.S.

La Salette is many things to many people. Yes, it is a place of reconciliation first, a destination for retreats held at the retreat & conference center, directed by Father Cyriac Mattathilanickal, M.S. There are many retreats for adults and youths, and retreats in different languages -- Portuguese, Spanish, Filipino, and Vietnamese -- are available.  There are also bereavement retreats.

The sacrament of Reconciliation is available daily. La Salette is a place of prayer with daily rosary and masses, healing services in different languages, multi-cultural celebrations, 14 ethnic pilgrimage days, youth ministries, young adult ministries, prayer groups, and days of recollection, spiritual direction, music concerts, and guest speakers. 

And there is so much more. 

There is a soup kitchen ministry, run by Brother Roger Moreau, M.S., feeding 120 people every Monday. La Salette also invites people to enjoy family events such as the carnival with rides and games, farmer’s market, circus, car show, and much more. 

Did you know that this holy place has 104 acres of natural beauty with its flowers and trees for all to enjoy?  Now you do!

La Salette also helps in the local community by opening up their facilities during hurricane emergencies, where the Red Cross is able to station their supplies for local needs as well as use for temporary shelter. 

“We come to serve, not to be served”

Over the course of our visits this autumn, Sue and I often found ourselves chatting with La Salette Director, Brother Bob Russell, M.S. He is a devoted La Salette Missionary, and a great lover of God’s people. He shared with us how he was La Salette director in 2001-2007 and from 2010 to present. He told us he loves every moment, because it gives him the opportunity to reach out to all visitors and be helpful to those who seek his help.  He loves people -- he is a true, “people person.”

Brother Bob also loves to talk about the history of La Salette, the many people he credits with its success, and then he makes a joke or two.  I keep reminding him how he needs to tell the public how they can help him go LED.  We talk about that for a bit before he tells us about another aspect of the shrine we didn’t know, or about another benefactor or volunteer who makes a difference at La Salette. 

So for me, I finally have to remind Brother Bob that while he’s giving me enough material for a really good book or three, I need to keep things focused on the LED topic.  Good luck to me with that!

During our talks with this remarkable deacon who has directed La Salette with such success and innovation (and at La Salette Ipswich for 26 years) it is always so obvious that not only is he very good at his mission, but he has a way of putting you at ease. He has an effect that when you meet him, you want to help him in his endeavors. Personally, he radiates that quality my beloved BC High priests repeatedly instilled in the students: He is, “A man for others.”

“We come to serve, not to serve,” he often says.  “How do we serve the people? You know what the catch word is?  “Reconciliation.”  We hear 42,000 confessions a year.  That is how we serve.”

We talked a lot this autumn.  We talked about the great goal Brother Bob has for the shrine to “go green” by converting the Christmas lights to all LED in the next few years, hopefully by 2014-2015. 

We also talked about so much more, and I came to appreciate La Salette as never before.

Frequently, Brother Paul Boucher, M.S. would join us in our conversations.  He has been at the shrine for 20 years.  He’s dedicated to various tasks, and Brother Bob encourages Brother Paul to talk about his work:

“I do Christmas lights,” the soft-spoken Brother explains.  I take care of the flowers [around the shrine].” And the Chapel of Light with 3,000 candles?  “That’s my baby.”  At that gorgeous chapel, he makes sure all candles are properly lit and all the memorial enrollments continue glowing as requested by donors. 

When he said that, I remembered our first meeting.  It was Easter Sunday, and Sue and I were looking to light some candles, and Brother Paul came by and got us some.  We offered to take away the empty candleholders, and soon we went to work, putting hundreds of blue plastic holders into rows of recycling barrels.  It was interesting to see the sheer volume of recycling and candles -- just another peek at behind the scenes at what a complex and impressive operation La Salette is. 

Many others make a difference at La Salette.  There’s Brother Lou Brodeur, M.S., the shrine’s jack-of-all trades, who’s responsible for the shrine electronics (such as the microphones and sound systems). 

Brother David Eubank, M.S.  is the shrine publicist as well as Young Adults Ministry coordinator.  He is a great asset to Brother Bob and the shrine.  Brother Dave is always cheerful with all incoming calls, answering all questions promptly about the shrine’s services and events. 

Brother Ron Taylor, M.S., is well known as the shrine’s volunteers coordinator and the La Salette community’s purchasing agent.  Brother Ron also found the live donkey who represents “Clopper the Christmas Donkey” throughout the Christmas season.  Brother Ron has grown very fond of “Clopper” and gives him lots of TLC while he stays at La Salette!

Brother Bob’s assistant is Father Tom Puthsseril, who also works at the retreat center, another tremendous asset to La Salette. 

They also have the La Salette Sisters, who do a variety of ministries at the Shrine. From Liturgical ministry to the Gift Shop, all who come are greeted with a smile.

And during our visits, we often spoke with Father Richard Delisle, one of the priests who remembers how it all began when he worked with shrine founder Father Rene Sauve, M.S., back in the day. 

One of the most beautiful things Father Delisle said to me was this: “What helps me, wherever there is good, there is God.  God is the source of all good.  Wherever there is beauty, be it poetry, be it song, sunrise, sunset, a child’s face, wherever there is something beautiful, God is at the source of that.” 

I loved those inspiring words. 

As we spoke in Brother Bob’s office, Brother Bob asked Sue why she comes to the shrine.  Sue talks about the peace, sitting quietly in the presence of God, and how she feels so much better when she does this.  Then, Brother Bob goes on to compliment Sue for the great job she did at the Tomb of the Resurrection of Jesus early this year.  Sue took an interest and worked to clean, paint and restore the statue of Jesus, patch holes, and get a local glass company to build a new glass casing, and she and a friend installed it.  It made many people very happy. 

We laugh and I reminded Susan of the many winter nights she came home, in a neck brace (from a home-repair ladder fall), covered in paint, dirt, with a smile on her face, talking about “I just had the most wonderful day.”

Sue smiles at that.  “I love being here at the shrine.  The whole place to me is holy.  You walk anywhere, hear the music, there is just an essence about this place that you cannot put it into words, when you walk the grounds ...  it’s just amazing.”

Sue was equally amazed when Brother Paul gave her a tour of the huge storage areas where the Christmas lights are kept in the off-season; she compared its size to a Costco warehouse and adds, “I was like in Disneyland, you know? My mouth dropped open, I saw the behind the scenes, behind the magic.”

To make that magic happen on time involves a lot of effort and work before Thanksgiving when the switch is “turned on” and this year’s, “DESCENDING DOVE” Festival of Lights begins. 

You see, what started in 1954, when La Salette’s founder, Father Rene Sauve, M.S., envisioned a modest light display, is now a dazzling panorama of 350,000 gorgeous lights illuminating La Salette over 46 nights.  It is an incredibly beautiful sight – and the effort to make it actually happen is staggering. 

Brother Paul nods.  “A lot of people figure you pull the switch, and everything comes out all right.”  What people do not understand is that Brother Paul and his small team of Brothers, maintenance staff and volunteers start the Herculean project in late August, and it will take them about 10 weeks to get everything ready, long before those 350,000 lights come on.  In fact, by mid-September, that construction was already VERY evident.

Brother Bob adds: “There’s a lot of stuff that goes on here.  And I want to give everybody credit, OK? It is not just Brother Paul, it’s not just Brother Bob.  It’s everybody working together.”

And I get to thinking; I just wish I could name everyone and what they do here.

Brother Bob elaborates, “There are 180 volunteers.  That is 262, counting the Eucharistic ministers, ushers, sacristans and hospitality.  We have 35 paid staff, 2 full-time and one part-time volunteers, 2 full time maintenance people, as well as 24 La Salette Missionaries and 3 La Salette Sisters.”

The mention of the nuns inspires Brother Bob to tell us about the legendary Sister Gertrude Gaudette, a Dominican nun, who Brother Bob describes as, “Retired, but rewired,” a woman who going is strong at the age of 87 and teaches art to 40 children.  An artist who took a hands-on approach at La Salette, not only creating outdoor decorations and painting the lovely “Creation,” “Saint Nicholas,” and the “A to Z” Christmas story boards.  Years before, Sister Gertrude was well known for climbing 16-foot ladders in the hottest days of summer, getting her hands dirty and doing the hard work to create and set up Christmas displays. 

Sister Gertrude is just one of many unsung heroes who create the magic at La Salette.  For example, Bob Roy, from BB Metal Art in Enfield, NH designed the metal art displays. 

Brother Bob talks next about the late Al Lapierre, an artist and a designer.  “He designed a lot of icons here that you see every year.  Al died five years ago, God rest his soul.  Al gave his time, his energy, and his spirit to Our Lady of La Salette and the community.” Brother Bob and Brother Paul described Al as humble, who never missed a daily mass, a man they dedicated their museum to in his memory.  In addition to the icons, Al created the St. Francis Garden and countless displays for the Christmas Festival of Lights.  Al also built the tabernacle at St. Joseph’s Church in Attleboro, and designed many, many artifacts.  His first project was the gorgeous latticework adoring each of the Stations of the Cross, which I personally consider synonymous with La Salette. 

Al is not only the late benefactor of La Salette.  Brother Bob relates stories about people whose lives have ended but whose legacy lives on. 

One very young man, who died tragically, bequeathed a collection of 400 gorgeous icons that depict various saints.  They will be displayed in the new icon museum this year.  Then there is Mr. Dugan of Wisconsin.  He will donate 412 crèches to La Salette, to be added to the already incredible international crèche museum, which has many hundreds of crèches from around the world.  And finally, Dr. Alex Peloquin, a composer and director, passed away, and part of his estate left funds to La Salette specifically for a new organ, which the shrine church so desperately needs. 

To me, in each case, out of the sadness and the loss, these people, their legacy continues.  People pass in and out of life here, but life itself and La Salette’s mission lives on. 

Christmas lights and the LED effort

Brother Bob loves that so many people make visiting La Salette an annual tradition.  “The people, in the back of their minds, I feel, in talking to a lot of families — “We have to go to La Salette first.  Before we do anything like buying gifts.” Because it’s not commercial.”

During this Christmas season the greatest concern is the cost of electricity -- about $40,000 for 46 nights of lights.  Reducing the cost of this bill is paramount.  As Brother Bob explains, going all LED will reduce this cost to a far more manageable and reachable $8,000 for an event that brings 250,000 (yes, a quarter million!) people from around the world to see the lights over that seven week period each year. 

It's a laudable goal, from not only the cost-savings standpoint, but part of the “going green” effort as well.  But converting to all LED is a huge effort.  Brother Paul elaborates, “The greatest challenge will be the big tall trees along the Stations of the Cross walkway.”   These are commercial grade $8 bulbs and the cost for all of these bulbs would be around $80,000.  But that will be later in the final stage; right now the goal is raising at least $70,000 to convert all the lower lights near the ground to LED lights.

And it’s worth repeating because the figure is staggering: When La Salette goes all LED, the electric bill for the Christmas Festival of Lights drops from $40,000 to $8,000!

There are additional challenges; everything must be to code, bulbs burn out, the lights need to be commercial grade (which means people cannot donate bulbs).  The Brothers look for solutions everywhere, from the man who gave La Salette a great deal in 2011 for 3000 LED lights, to promotions, to donations, to (wait for it)

...The cans and bottles.

Yes, returnable bottles and cans are a VERY big deal at La Salette — Brothers Bob and Paul have been efficiently collecting and redeeming cans and bottles for years, and they have redeemed a LOT of them. 

“Every three weeks, Paul and I redeem about 6,000 cans and bottles.  People have no concept of what we’re doing with the cans and bottles.  But when I tell them, you know, it’s through a can and a bottle that can reach our goal, they’re amazed.”

And Brother Bob makes it clear – he’ll root through the trash to find them – he’ll get his hands dirty; he wants those bottles and cans. 

When you come to La Salette, bring your redeemable cans and bottles and drop them off at the bins located around the shrine. 

“We call it, “Cans & Bottles for LED.”  This has been a great success. We have gotten lots of cans and bottles! We are very grateful to everyone who is helping the shrine,” Brother Bob says.

But the collection of cans doesn’t just benefit the shrine; Brother Bob elaborates, “What I’d like to bring in this article is that we’re not only helping ourselves, but we are helping another person, because the tabs we take off the cans will help someone’s health treatment.  For every thousand, they get a free dialysis treatment.  This is so rewarding to me ...  knowing that we can still help ease his or her suffering.  We get five cents per can or bottle.  The big thing there is helping another person.  Right now, we have helped 125 people receive dialysis treatments.”

One can at a time, one bottle at a time, they’re raising funds for La Salette’s LED effort AND helping others get dialysis.  Incredible. 

He continues, “People are awesome and generous.”  Brother Bob then continues to reflect, saying, “…this reminds me of my dear mother; God rest her soul… She said, “You know, son, work with the people.  Get dirty with the people.  Get down there and pull up those boots.”  And ever since then I have tried to do that because mother told me so.  That was her value.” 

And I often tell Brother Bob how much I enjoy talking to him and his sense of humor.  He smiles at that and adds, “If you don’t have a sense of humor, you might as well quit.”

Concerts

The Christmas Festival of Lights must go on this year without one of La Salette’s performers, Father Andre Patenaude, M.S., best known as Father Pat.  The beloved La Salette priest who could be seen and heard in concert nearly every day during the Festival of Lights for over 40 years, is quite ill; he was in an induced coma for some time.  He is recovering slowly.

I have seen his shows; he is a talented and charismatic performer.  I’d like to take this opportunity to ask everyone to pray for him and send him your prayers and good thoughts for a speedy recovery and return home to La Salette soon. 

And what better time to ask for a miracle than at Christmas?

Also, to help fill the void, La Salette will be welcoming some extraordinary talent to the shrine for ticketed events that are likely to sell out quickly. Here are the confirmed performers and dates:

  • Dec. 12: The URI Symphony Orchestra, Ann Danis, Conductor; and the URI Concert Choir, Mark Conley, Conductor. Sponsored by themselves as well. 
  • Dec. 13: Krisanthi Pappas and her band – A local favorite and national sensation, jazz/pop vocalist and songwriter.  Sponsored by Don Rodman of Foxboro. 
  • Dec. 20: The choristers of St. Paul’s church, Harvard square, the internationally renowned Boston boy’s choir, led by Conductor John Robinson.  (Note: This concert will take place in the church.) Sponsored by Antony Canova and the Colonel Blackington Inn, Attleboro. 
  • Dec. 23 – Ayla Brown – The American Idol semifinalist went on to great fame as an athlete and superstar singer, performing nationally and locally. Sponsored by Luciano Canova and Lucianos Restaurant Wrentham. 

There will also be many other shows and concerts in the welcome center hall (see La Salette’s website for an updated schedule). 

Also, during each day of the festival, there will pre-recorded music of Father Pat playing in the church, along with an opportunity to purchase one or more of his 40 Concert CDs.  The new organ will be played by Kyle Jameson at 3pm and 7pm on selected nights in the church as well.

Other ways to help

During the Christmas Festival, there are other ways to help La Salette.  Brother Bob told us of some local businesses who want to help him during this Christmas season by offering 20 percent discounts to customers who will have a “La Salette coupon.”

The coupon flyer can be picked up when you visit the shrine.  Get a coupon and visit any of these restaurants from November 22, 2012 to Jan. 30, 2013:  Uno’s  in Attleboro, and  Rancho Chico in Plainville.  20 percent of your meal total will be donated to the shrine for the LED efforts. 

That’s a great deal! You enjoy a special Christmas evening out with your family and at the same time you are donating 20 percent of your meal to help this beautiful Christmas Festival of Lights “go green.”

And speaking of food, you’ll never go hungry at La Salette.  They have an excellent bistro, as well many booths to get food.  Brother Bob adds that La Salette goes through many pizzas a night, along with selling hot chocolate, hot cider, bread, and the famous French meat pies.  You get fed, and your purchase helps the shrine. 

There’s more!  Another change this year is a way to donate when you leave.  Completely voluntary, there will be spots at the exits for you to make a donation, even small change, and if you give a donation over $10 you get a stuffed “Clopper the Christmas donkey” as a souvenir.

At this point, Sue exclaims, “That’s great, I love it.  You have a mascot now, that kids can bring him home!”

But it’s clearly a tough decision for Brother Bob -- he is a paradox.  The shrine needs the donations to survive, but he seems to loathe to come out and ask for entrance fee or a parking fee. 

“I will not ask.  What the next guy does, that’s up to him.  I mean, 59 years we have existed ...  yes we are hurting.  I’m not going to make no bones about that because we have to pay our bills, just like everybody else.”

There’s so much: The fundraising, bottle and can collections, and the Annual Appeal (they have a small booklet depicting all ministries of the shrine).  The shrine is also in the process of selling an unused property across the street from the shrine, on the condition that the area be used only for homes and never a business. 

“It’s all about meeting the bottom line, paying the bills, everything,” Brother Bob adds.

Wrapping up

Brother Bob has talked to so many people who say that it isn’t Christmas until they go to La Salette.  There is so much love in his voice as he describes the scene.  “This is Christmas.  They see the Christ Child.  They see the crib.  They see the donkey.  They see the lights.  That brings them into a grace-filled atmosphere and with family -- that’s what family needs.  This is the reason why so many people come here as family.  It is to get the beauty of what Christmas is all about.”

My friends, this article, which began as an idea for a modest piece about the LED goal for La Salette, has become so very much more to me.  It’s been months of conversations, writing and rewriting and rewriting, a labor of love.

It was such a great pleasure to be able to have these conversations with Brother Bob, Brother Paul, Brother David and Father Delisle, and meeting and talking to so many other people.  I want to encourage everyone to discover the beauty of La Salette.  If you know about it, please tell others, and if you have not been in a while, now is the time.  Come see the Christmas lights, take some time to learn about La Salette and all that La Salette is offering to you.  You’ll feel it – there are graces waiting to be showered upon you as you step into these holy grounds of La Salette.  You will be amazed.  I always am.

I also encourage you – if at all possible — to make even a small donation when you visit.  But if you can’t, please, please visit anyway and see this “healing environment of beauty, peace, and prayer.” You’ll see what a hidden gem it really is, why we love it so much, and all the good work done there.  And if you can help La Salette in any way, all the better. 

Nothing would make me happier than seeing this beautiful place thriving for generations to come.  You can help make that dream a reality. 

“Descending Dove” La Salette’s 2012 Christmas Festival of Lights, runs from November 22, 2012 to January 6, 2013 with illuminations from 5 to 9 p.m. daily.  There are $5 narrated trolley tours, carousel rides, concerts, nearly 500 Nativity displays, “Faces of Jesus Exhibit”, the New Icon Museum, Saint Brother Andre Bessette, CSC museum, food and much more.  You can visit their excellent website at http://www.lasalette-shrine.org for much more information and concerts tickets (also sold at the door), call (508) 222-5410, and visit at 947 Park Street, Attleboro.

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