For years, thousands of Bostonians have sought healing by praying before a golden image of the Virgin Mary in a shrine on Mission Hill. They kneel before the painting, leave flowers by the rail, deposit notes in a glass bowl, turn on electronic candles, even drop off crutches or braces as a sign of a miraculous cure.
Many of the petitioners are poor and powerless.
But over the years, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy also came to the shrine seeking healing. Now his family has chosen the landmark basilica in which the shrine is located as the site for the senator's funeral today.
Kennedy visited the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help daily in 2002 while his daughter was being treated for lung cancer at the nearby Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, praying before the icon and meeting with a priest thought to have a healing touch. And the senator again visited the basilica last year, after he was diagnosed with brain cancer.
"The senator wanted to be buried from the basilica because of a deep connection developed here during his daily visits while his daughter, Kara, was going through cancer treatment," said Scott Ferson, a former Kennedy staffer who is helping the family with funeral preparations. "Because of her recovery, it remained an especially sacred place for him."
The choice of the basilica, a puddingstone Romanesque Revival structure that punctuates the cityscape with its high octagonal cupola and twin spires, came as a surprise to many, who expected the funeral to take place either in Boston's Cathedral of the Holy Cross or in a church near one of the senator's homes, on Cape Cod and in Washington. And the basilica, which is commonly known as the Mission Church, presents logistical challenges:
It is not air-conditioned, there is no parking, and it is in a dense urban neighborhood on a narrow stretch of Tremont Street that is a frequent traffic bottleneck.
But the basilica is large and historic. During its heyday, as many as 15,000 people a day came to pray there. It is in one of the city's most diverse and often overlooked neighborhoods, dominated for years by German and then Irish immigrants but now populated by a mix of immigrants from Latin America, Africa and the Caribbean; low-income residents of several housing projects; and a large number of college students and young adults who work or study at the nearby colleges and hospitals.
"It is a church that is woven into the history of the Archdiocese of Boston," said the Rev. J. Bryan Hehir, a top official of the archdiocese and a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "Catholics of a certain age will remember World War II, when the church was filled with people saying a novena for people in battle. And the senator's connection highlights his own personal piety, which was often hidden from the public."
Basilica officials say they were surprised and honored by the decision.
Early in its history, there were so many reported miracles that the church was called the "Home of Wonders." In more recent years, a "healing priest" named the Rev. Edward McDonough drew thousands of ailing people to the basilica.
The centerpiece of the church is the side altar with the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help — an image of Mary cradling Jesus with the archangels Gabriel and Michael flying above. The icon is a copy of a 12th-century Byzantine image.
The chapel is framed by two large vase-shaped displays of crutches and braces that people have given in recognition of healings; there is also a Red Sox cap hanging from the crutches that was left by a worshiper seeking a miracle for the Olde Towne Team. And there is evidence of other devotional practices, as well — the corpus of Jesus on the century-old crucifix in the entryway has been rubbed so often that the paint is gone from Jesus' toes.
Worshipers interviewed Wednesday said they are pleased with the prospect that the funeral will draw attention to the basilica.
"It just gives you a warm feeling when you come here," said Tony Luna, a 51-year-old construction worker from Framingham, who said he stops by the basilica every morning to pray. And even those who were unhappy with Kennedy's support for abortion rights found reasons for optimism.
"I hope for a conversion of all the politicians who will be here," said Jerome Crowley, 70, of Arlington. "I have high hopes."