By DON GLYNN
Lockport Union-Sun & Journal
Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — YOUNGSTOWN — The Rev. Julio Ciavaglia, CRSP, director of Our Lady of Fatima Shrine was serving as a parish priest in Stoney Creek, Ont., when he decided on a unique way to celebrate Christmas.
"I remember being in a shopping mall where they had a humongous Santa Claus (with the long line of youngsters waiting to talk with him) and not a single sign of anything related to the true significance of the season," Father Julio recalled. "It made me angry."
Father Julio, as he is known, quickly shuns any credit from his personal involvement in the success of the event. "I like to be the person behind the scenes while I prefer that Father Peter (Calabrese) be the person out front and on stage," Father Julio quipped, alluding to the associate director of the shrine.
In earlier days, the large shrine parking lot was often filled on weekends with countless cars and motor coaches, many bearing Ontario license plates.
"Our traffic from the Canadian side is definitely down," Father Ciavaglia said, attributing the decline to the perceived delays at the border.
"Since 9-11 (the terrorist attacks in the U.S.), our traffic from Ontario has diminished a great deal," Father Julio said.
Previously on many weekends the shrine parking lot would be virtually filled with cars and chartered buses, many bearing Canadian license plates. In the wake of the attacks, the sharp increase in security at the border resulted in lengthy delays that discouraged many people from visiting the festival.
Father Julio explained that the real impetus in founding the festival was to counter the crass commercial aspect of what should be a holy season. He recalled walking the grounds early one evening when a woman with a tour group stopped briefly to survey the scene and observed, "Now I feel like I'm in Christmas." The priest said, "That helped convince me that perhaps we were doing it right." Too many people tend to get distracted and forget the true meaning of Christmas, he added.
Even Santa Claus is being used during the season in a way that denigrates his image, the shrine director says, citing a television commercial that portrays St. Nicholas as a sinister-looking individual with vampire-like teeth. "Good Lord! What's next," the director exclaimed.
All of the illuminated exhibits have been designed by Father Julio and built by Brian Brant, the maintenance foreman. The 45-day festival, founded in 1991, will run through Jan. 6, 2014.
Each year, thousands of Buffalo-Niagara area residents, as well as pilgrims from throughout Western New York and southwestern Ontario visit the shrine.
"We continue to receive inquiries from visitors," said Michelle Blackley, communications director and marketing specialist for the Niagara Tourism & Convention Corp. She said representatives from the national media, especially at this time of the year, are often looking to do features on light shows and festivals. "And people come from all over to enjoy the event," she added.
The 15-acre site that opens tonight will be open seven days a week, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., with the lights on from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Many visitors opt to climb the 63 steps to the top of the Dome Basilica for what the Barnabite priests describe as "an angel's view" of the spectacular Christmas lights. The approach to the Basilica is down the Avenue of the Saints (more than 100 life-size marble statues symbolic of every race and walk of life) and around the Rosary Pool. Atop the Dome stands the Our Lady of Fatima statue, 13 feet high and weighing 10 tons. It was carved from Vermont granite.
Nearby is a gift shop and book store and a comfortable cafeteria that can accommodate upwards of 300 people. The cafeteria hours during the festival are from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday and Monday through Thursday from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. On Fridays, fish fry dinners are available from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Shrine-bound motorists from the Niagara Falls area are advised to take the Robert Moses Parkway north to Pletcher Road, the first exit past Lewiston, and turn right off the exit to Creek Road. From there, turn right and proceed on Creek Road (Route 18) to a left turn at Swann Road. The shrine is less than a 1/2-mile east on the left.