Like many great cathedrals throughout the world, San Francisco’s was built to honor Mary’s unique role in God’s plan for human salvation. Her model of discipleship as expressed in Scripture offers inspiration to all Christians and is the unifying theme of the seven Marian shrines of St. Mary’s Cathedral.

While older churches were built with devotional alcoves and side chapels and altars, St. Mary’s Marian shrines are set like jewels around the perimeter of the cathedral interior, inviting visitors into public reflection and prayer. The openness of the shrines in the sanctuary reflects the communal spirit of prayer established by Vatican II.

Archbishop John R. Quinn, Archbishop McGucken’s successor, turned to the Italian artist who had created the majestic sculpture over the entrance to the cathedral, and commissioned Enrico Manfrini to design the first of the 1.5-ton bronze sculptures, each depicting scriptural passages in which Mary played a central role. The shrine sculptures were completed and installed, one at a time, between 1981 and 1996. They are anchored to the walls of the niches by custom-designed structural supports that create an ethereal, “free-floating” effect over simple kneelers.

Our Lady of Guadalupe shrine is the most prominent, and undoubtedly the most visited, shrine at St. Mary’s Cathedral. Pilgrims from around the globe, especially those with origins in the Americas (Our Lady of Guadalupe is known as the patroness of the Americas) pray to the “Queen of the New World” and lay flowers at her feet year-round.

The sculpture’s central panel is a traditional Mexican mosaic by artist Jorge Rodriguez Moreno surrounded by a bronze frame designed by Manfrini. The sculpture depicts the “burning bush” encountered by Moses on Mount Sinai, a foretelling of Mary, who was able to carry God incarnate within her without being consumed by his glory.

The Visitation shrine depicts the three months Mary spent at the home of her cousin, Elizabeth, who was with child at an advanced age. Her son is St. John the Baptist. Manfrini’s depiction is different than other common scenes of the Visitation, which simply portray the meeting of the two women. Here, Mary is seen serving the household of Elizabeth and her husband, Zechariah. She waits on the elderly couple while she herself is with child.

No sooner is Christ born than the shadow of the cross falls. The Holy Family is forced to flee their home in Bethlehem to Egypt in order to escape a plot by King Herod to kill the child. In Manfrini’s sculpture, an angel holds a mantle over the exiled family, a symbol of God’s protection, while Mary cradles her child. Joseph follows behind the donkey, a statement by the artist to show that it is God, not he, who leads them on their journey. This scene from the infancy of Christ was considered especially appropriate for a new cathedral in the United States, where many have found safe refuge from violence, persecution and poverty in their home countries.

This shrine is one of two sculptures at the back of the cathedral designed by Mario Rudelli, a protégé of Manfrini. Rudelli’s bold, energetic style is a complement to the more delicate, ethereal lines in Manfrini’s work. The shrine depicts the first miracle by Jesus in his public ministry. As wedding guests in Cana, Mary calls Jesus’ attention to the fact the wine has run out. Jesus initially declines his mother’s entreaty, telling her that his time had not yet come. He is ultimately moved to act by his mother’s faith as his disciple.

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