‘Let There Be Light’ is theme for shrine’s 64th annual display

By Kenneth J. Souza
Anchor Staff

ATTLEBORO, Mass. — From politics to mass killings to the latest in sexual harassment allegations, it could be argued that 2017 hasn’t exactly been the best of times, to borrow a phrase from Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities.”

So Father Ted Brown, M.S., director of the National Shrine of Our Lady of La Salette in Attleboro, is hoping people will take the opportunity to come visit during this Christmas season to escape and bask in the lights.

“Our theme this year is ‘Let There Be Light,’ and the inspiration for that came from the idea that people think it’s kind of a dark time,” Father Brown told The Anchor. “With so many issues happening (in our world), God speaks into the darkness and says: ‘Let There Be Light.’”

The shrine’s 64th annual Festival of Lights celebration is now open to the public and began, appropriately enough, with the welcoming of the Bethlehem Peace Light — transferred from a perpetual candle burning at the site of Christ’s birth — on the Sunday after Thanksgiving.

“We will keep the candle going — we have a special spot, along with a little scene depicting Mary, Joseph and Jesus in their home in Nazareth — we’re going to put it in there and keep it out of the elements, but people can still see it when they come to visit,” Father Brown said. “It will remain burning through the Christmas season. And weather-permitting, every Saturday and Sunday night there will be a candlelight procession from the church after the 4 p.m. Mass to the outdoor manger scene.”

Dating back to 1953, when the shrine opened on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, the yearly Festival of Lights display began with a simple outdoor crèche scene and has grown into a spectacular attraction with more than 300,000 lights, inspiring displays, concerts and special events that highlight the Advent and Christmas season for faithful throughout the Fall River Diocese and beyond.

“I didn’t know this, but we’re listed as the number one attraction for Attleboro on Trip Advisor,” Father Brown said.

In fact, visiting the shrine to see the colorful display has been an annual tradition for thousands of families for more than 60 years.

“It’s hard for us to take an accurate count, but we estimate maybe a quarter-million people visit every year,” Father Brown said. “We kind of guess, but it may be higher. The only definite way is by the number of candle sales. And that tells us if we have a real good night. On a good night, we can sell close to 10,000 candles. That’s really the only measure to tell us how many people come to visit.”

Located on the 10-acre shrine property, the outdoor display is illuminated and open to the public daily from 5 to 9 p.m. through January 1.

“What impresses me the most is all sorts of people come to the shrine,” Father Brown said. “There are people you can tell are struggling financially, and they’re not going to be able to take the family to Orlando the day after Christmas; but by golly, they brought their kids to La Salette. And maybe they buy them a hot chocolate or a souvenir, and the father can walk out with some pride that he did something nice for his children for Christmas.

“The other nice thing we did this year for the first time since I’ve been here is we invited families to come help us set up the outdoor manger scene. We had four families show up and they helped us push the big sculptures around and the kids helped throw all the hay down and we gave them all Advent Calendars.”

Many will be happy to learn that “Clopper” the donkey has made his welcomed return to La Salette Shrine this year.

The animal, which is loaned to the shrine from a local farm and has become a highlight for visitors, was removed last year amid accusations that he was being mistreated and left outside during harsh weather conditions.

“I know they are well-meaning people, but they just didn’t have all their facts straight,” Father Brown said. “Clopper is a rescue donkey and the woman who loans him to us is a rescuer — she’s not going to put that animal in any danger. We just feel that is an important part of the Nativity story and I think we’re cutting our children off more and more from nature. So for them to see a real live donkey is educational, I think. And we don’t take him out if it’s horribly bad weather. They are desert animals, so they can handle the cold. I’ve done a lot of research about donkeys lately — much more than I want to know.”

Father Brown expressed his own fascination with the fact that the donkey appears twice at key points in Christ’s life — once just before His birth and then as He rides into Jerusalem before His death.

“The Gospel writers were brilliant,” he said. “We think these things were just happenstance, but they knew how to weave a good story. And to have that almost kind of parentheses is fascinating to me. I mean, who knows what He actually rode in on. But the story demands — if you’re going to really understand Who Jesus is — that the donkey is extremely important.”

Ever-expanding, the Festival of Lights will have some new additions this year, according to Father Brown.

“Around St. Francis there are now some light displays with outlines of animals that will be lit up along with a couple of big arches over the entryway coming in,” he said.

Fans of shrine fixture and famed “troubadour priest,” Father André “Pat” Patenaude, can also see him perform live in concert to help get them into the spirit of the season.

“Father Pat has changed his concert schedule — he’s been doing concerts on Friday, Saturday and Sunday at the 3 and 7 p.m. times,” Father Brown said. “But then, during the week, if he gets a request to do one and it’s more than 25 people, he’ll graciously do one. And we’ve been getting a fair amount of requests for him to perform.”

With the extended weather forecast through December looking promising, Father Brown anticipates a good turnout for this year’s annual Christmas display.

“I was looking at the Accuweather forecast for the next month, and every weekend looks decent — maybe cloudy, but not overly cold,” he said. “I know they’re only basing that on averages, but that’s good news for us.”

Father Brown also offered some advice for avoiding traffic delays during the busy holiday season.

“If people want to avoid the traffic, there are two tricks to it,” he said. “One, on a weekend if they get here between 4 and 4:30, they can drive right in; two, if they can come on a weeknight, they can drive right in almost any time. If they can avoid the weekend altogether, they’ll beat the traffic.”

As always, there is no admission charge to attend La Salette’s Festival of Lights, but donations are most welcomed and much appreciated.

“That’s been the fascinating question that we get all the time over the Internet and on Facebook — people always ask how much does it cost and they are always surprised to learn it’s free,” Father Brown said. “We just want people to come and have a good experience and maybe think of the Church in a warm and friendly way, because this is something the Church provides. Yes, it’s a fund raiser for us, but it’s ultimately a way to bring people closer to God during the Christmas season.”

The National Shrine of Our Lady of La Salette is located at 947 Park Avenue in Attleboro. For more information visit lasaletteattleboroshrine.org.

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