Miracle on South Division Street is a fun show to work on for a lot of reasons. One of those reasons, at least for me, was the chance to combine my love of theatre and my love of road trips!
The play is set in author Tom Dudzick‘s hometown of Buffalo, and it was inspired by a shrine to the Virgin Mary outside the barbershop where Tom had his hair cut as a child. The barbershop, like many businesses in the neighborhood, is gone now, but the shrine has survived. It stands in front of a parking lot, the buildings around it razed years ago. It has its own address – 847 Seneca Street – and a mail slot where prayer requests and donations are delivered. It’s such a stranger-than-fiction thing that, naturally, I had to see it for myself. So, on a sunny afternoon in November, I hit the road.
The shrine now stands on the edge of a parking lot – the buildings around it have been torn down. The walls are brick, and there’s a shingled roof, a large plate glass window (which opens, for cleaning and maintenance), and a chandelier inside. It’s bigger than I’d expected – visitors have to climb a couple of steps to peer in the window, and even then the statue’s feet are at about eye-level. Inside, there’s lots of room for decorations, notes and photographs around the life-sized statue of a petite young woman.
The shrine’s caretaker, Louis Batista, met me there and opened up the window so I could get a better view inside. He lives across the street and has been taking care of the shrine for 23 years, since an elderly neighbor turned the keys over to him. He has no connection to Joseph Battaglia, the barber who had the shrine built – never met him, in fact. But Louis appreciates the shrine and says it’s brought luck to him and to his tool and die business.
In general, taking care of the shrine isn’t a huge investment. Louis pays the electric bill, about $27/month, and he changes the decor – red flowers at Christmas, shamrocks for St. Patrick’s Day – but the donations people leave in the mail slot help cover that. It doesn’t take a lot of time, either – every week or two, he checks the mail, and about once a month he puts out a new set of notes around the statue’s feet. But from his home across the street, he keeps an eye on the shrine, and often comes out to talk to curious visitors.
For the fictional Clara Nowak in Miracle, it’s a big concern that the Catholic Church has never sanctioned the vision that inspired the shrine. But in real life, Louis Batista doesn’t seem bothered by it. Official holy site or not, he knows the shrine is important to the neighborhood and to the people who send their prayer requests there, and that’s all there is to it.