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Mary Help of Christians

by Horacio Espinosa
Inside the Church

Some may already know that since childhood the Salesians won my heart, and therefore Mary Help of Christians. I did not know

Today I want to tell you about the Basilica that has as co-title to this Marian advocation and that it is worth being known not only for its architecture, which is very pleasing to the eyes; nor for its history (our Pope Francis was baptized here); not only because the image of Mary Help of Christians was blessed by St. John Bosco himself. Rather, for all this.

Some History

Towards the sights of the nineteenth century, on one side of what was then called the Camino Real, in what today would be the junction of Medrano and Boedo Avenues, Villa San Carlos began, consisting of no more than a few houses scattered on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. Aires Today that place is the Almagro neighborhood of the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires.

At that time, a family from Villa San Carlos gave away land for the construction of a church called San Carlos Borromeo. It was blessed by the Archbishop of Buenos Aires and given to the Bayonne Fathers (from Bayonne, France) who attended the religious needs of the Basque residents in the area.

In parallel, many kilometers away, in Italy, the Turin priest Juan Bosco developed a great task in favor of children and youth. In a time of strong missionary impulse throughout the world, Don Bosco wanted to add his Salesians in this apostolic movement and they arrived in Argentina in 1875. Some of them took over the Mater Misericordiae chapel in the Montserrat neighborhood, with the purpose of accompany the Italian immigrants who arrived in Buenos Aires, while other groups went to Patagonia.

A short time later, the Bayonne fathers left the San Carlos Borromeo chapel and this was offered to the Salesians. After a short time, the temple was small and it was Father José Vespignani, parish priest and Salesian inspector, who began to think about a new temple in homage to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and to Mary Help of Christians.

In this way the construction of the temple was started. Father José asked his superiors in Turin to send someone to take over the work. Don Bosco sent his brother, the priest and architect Ernesto Vespignani, who along with a group of Italian immigrants settled in the area began to define the project of a church that would consist of three levels:

  • A central path for the faithful.
  • Superior galleries for students.
  • A crypt destined for the Salesian community.

Father Ernesto had the help of the neighbors and the students of the Pio IX School, which was then dependent on the Salesian congregation. Such a workshop would eventually be called “Department of Religious Architecture and Art Office”.

For the construction money was collected among the neighbors and until Ceferino Namuncurá (today venerable Servant of God), he wrote to Father Ernesto from the Argentine town of Uribelarrea to join this great campaign.

In 1902, despite the fact that the crypt was not completely finished, mass began to be celebrated. However, it was in 1910, next to the Centennial of the May Revolution in Argentina that Archbishop Monsignor Antonio Espinosa wanted to unite both events declaring “… this new temple, Argentine Popular Homage of the National Centenary and one of the religious monuments that are solemnly inaugurated with the favor of God and through the help of the people. ” On May 24, the day of Mary Help of Christians and the eve of the national holiday, the image of the Virgin blessed by Don Bosco himself was placed.

The importance that this church had from its origin meant that Pope Pius XII elevated it to the category of Basilica in 1942. A few years later, the same Pontiff declared Mary Help of Christians as “co-owner” of the temple. For this reason, since then it is known as Parish Basilica of Mary Help of Christians and San Carlos

Some architectural data

The Byzantine taste is present in the decorations with tiles that form mosaics in the marble alters and in the canvases painted on a golden background that accompany the image of the Sacred Heart on the main altar.

The Basilical and Pilgrimage plant, with a main nave and two lateral ones, conclude in a staircase for the pilgrims who want to reach the feet of the Virgin, since their dressing room is elevated like a celestial throne.

That staircase that also climbs the Pulpit is decorated like the rest, in modernist style and as a horn. In the Dressing Room, the image of Mary Help of Christians carved in France is made of polychrome wood.

The other altars, Sacred Heart and Mary Help of Christians, give the temple its similarity to the Lombard or Ambrosian style.

The whole temple is divided into three levels:

  • Crypt (Church purgative)
  • Medium (Pilgrim Church)
  • Superior (Church triumphant)

Above the entrance we can see the organ of 2546 tubes manufactured in Turin that has been declared “well integrated in the Cultural Heritage of the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires” in May 2017. It has three manual keyboards of 61 notes each and a pedalboard of 30 notes; the original console had 58 notes in the manuals and 27 in the pedalboard. It also has 38 real registers, 3 bellows and a system of free adjustable electronic combinations (96 in total). There is also an echo organ, located in a boundary enclosure with the dome of the temple. It can be played from the first manual keyboard or from the third. It has 3 records.

The Basilica is illuminated with hanging lamps and Venetian glass tulips with their baroque support structures.

The bell tower has eight bells of Italian origin automated with electronic carrillón. They perform both songs and concerts for bells during the festivities.

The temple rises on the floor of the crypt that has identical dimensions. There we found the funeral chapel and a main altar and an own organ that accompanied the singing of Carlos Gardel and Ceferino Namuncurá.

The remains of Father Ernesto Vespigniani rest in the crypt.

Behind the Altar is the baptistry where Jorge Bergoglio began his steps in our Faith.

The visit

Actually more than a single visit I had the grace to know the place since childhood, it was there where we used to take a tour sometimes.

But, to be honest, at that time it was just an excursion with my companions, I really did not have any dimension of the importance that this Basilica had.

Already as an adult, with my path of faith starting again, I had a May 24 (day of Mary Help of Christians) to know the Basilica erected in its name from the city of Lima, Peru.

It was then that I said to myself, how can it be that I come to this Basilica in Peru and do not know (come back, actually) to our Basilica in Buenos Aires. That day I decided to visit her again but I did not want it to be any day, I wanted to go on May 24, feast of the Virgin.

Of course, this was not going to be so easy …

As the saying goes, Mary calls you, Mary takes you. She made sure that one day, May 24, I had to work near the Basilica. I finished my journey a little early and went to the Celebration of the Holy Mass in Honor of our Mother.

I arrived with the minutes counted for the beginning of the Celebration, just for the solemn entry of the Image, at which time we all sing, applaud and I must admit that many of us were excited.

The Cerebration was very emotional and at the close of it, I went to the Camarín de María, on the Main Altar.

Really moved to tears, I sat in a seat behind the prayers to decline, being grateful for the only words that came out after such an emotional moment lived.

That was a second great reunion with Mama Maria, I’ll tell you the first one on another visit.

Time after starting to write these logs, I thought I should do something with this Basilica, but I did not know how to start.

It was then that a priest I had met in the Salesian house where I attended as a child was transferred to this basilica and posted an impressive photo on his Facebook page, which immediately led me to contact him in order to write these lines.

The Father of whom I am speaking is called Cayetano Castello, and has a particularity: his homilies are great, funny but very deep. I usually say that he has a telescopic laser sight, which makes his words touch the heart of each of the people who are listening to him.

Finally, I went to visit Father Cayetano, I had the grace of having to wait a few minutes, and I just sat under an image of Mary Help of Christians in a hallway near the office. This made the wait pleasant, so much so that I do not know if I was there was one or several minutes, because these go unnoticed when one is close to Mama Maria.

The Father was very kind as always, he gave me all the time necessary to explain the history of the Basilica, part of which I have written in these lines.

As I always comment, Mary seeks us, calls us, gives us opportunities to get closer, it only depends on us to do so. Whether near or far, that does not matter; be long or short the time, does not matter either; the important thing is to give the Yes to our Mother.

Traveler’s Tips

  • The city of Buenos Aires has many beautiful temples. This is undoubtedly one of them, and it is also very well taken care of.
  • I could not know the crypt, which is large but was in maintenance at the time of my visit.
  • See the Baptismal font where the current Pope Francis, at that time Jorge Mario Bergoglio began his path of Faith.
  • Walk 500 meters and get to know the centuries-old Las Violetas confectionery (Av. Rivadavia 3899).
  • The address of the Basilica is Av. Hipólito Yrigoyen 3999.

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