Pilgrimage walk May 13, Mass with Bishop Conley May 14
ARAPAHOE (SNR) – St. Germanus Parish in Arapahoe, home of the Our Lady of Fatima Shrine, will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the apparitions in Fatima, Portugal with a weekend of events.
On Saturday, May 13, a 16-mile walking pilgrimage will be held from St. John the Baptist Church in Cambridge, to the Fatima Shrine in Arapahoe. It will begin at 7 a.m. and be open until the late afternoon. Breakfast, lunch, snacks and water will be provided along the route, and each participant will receive a t-shirt. The cost to join is $20 per person, and registration is requested by May 12.
The Fatima Shrine at Arapahoe, built in gratitude for the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, was completed in 1956.
Father Henry Denis, a former pastor at St. Germanus, had been a Polish military chaplain during World War II. He was captured by the Germans in 1939 and imprisoned at Buchenwald.
While Buchenwald was an extermination camp, Father Denis said the chaplains there were not “destined for death,” although they were punished like prisoners with starvation, exhaustion, and they witnessed torture and death nearly every day. Chaplains were also not allowed to exercise their priestly duties.
“For us, the offering of the Mass, confessions and reciting the rosary – all this was prohibited under the penalty of death,” he recalled in a 1971 interview. “Two Austrian priests were caught praying the rosary, they were killed on the spot.”
Father Denis described how he prayed only mentally, using his fingers to count the prayers of the rosary.
In 1942 Father Denis was transferred to Dachau, where priests were leveled to the same status as all prisoners, and 29 of them died within the first few weeks.
In addition to the torture Father Denis suffered, he was afflicted with illness, but, he said “the worst was yet to come.”
In 1944 Father Denis became one of the Nazis’ “experimental guinea pigs,” becoming subjected to medical experiments for their research. He received a series of malaria injections over five months in 1944 and was destined for the last injections – which he had witnessed killing all those infected – “but in the last moment I was saved.”
On the morning of Oct. 7, 1944, the feast of the Holy Rosary, Father Denis was praying the rosary fervently during roll call. There were many corpses that day, he recalled, and a prisoner was missing.
“There was a lot of shouting, cursing, kicking and clubbing…. To forget that hell on earth, deep in my mind and heart I prayed the rosary. The rosary took me up there,” he continued, “into a different world. There were moments ... that I did not hear anything.”
Later when the prisoners began working, several priest friends asked what happened when his number was called during roll.
“My blood stopped to circulate,” Father Denis said. “To be called and not to report at once, that’s death – and death flashed through my mind as never before. Oh what excruciating hours those hours were.”
But Father Denis found that when they returned to camp, no one called him, and no one was looking for him.
“And it was on that day, Oct. 7, 1944, that I made a promise, a vow, that if I ever leave the camp alive, I would give the Blessed Mother some kind of a visible gratitude – a little shrine.”
Father Denis narrowly survived the last several months in Dachau before it was liberated April 29, 1945. He was very ill and very weak and confided in another prisoner priest how his life had been spared, but he doubted whether he would live, due to his frailty.
“He pierced me with his unusually penetrating eyes and whispered to me: You will live. The Americans will liberate us. Christ will save a number of priests to give witness to the world. You will be among them. Pray the rosary. There will be peace. Remember Our Lady of Fatima. Spread her message of peace. To preserve freedom, we must pray, do penance, and we must sacrifice!”
Father Denis referred to that priest as a Mariologist with a “special charisma.” It was Father Joseph Kentenich, now well known for founding the Schoenstatt Movement.
After Dachau was liberated and Father Denis was living in Italy, already he was trying to show in a visible way his gratitude for Mary’s intercession. He shared colored pictures of Our Lady of Czestochowa so often that people started writing to him for more copies. Eventually one such correspondent reported that the Diocese of Lincoln in Nebraska needed more priests and might be happy to have him.
“America is my goal,” he responded. “Father, help me!”
For a clergyman, it was not easy to come to the United States, Father Denis reported, but eventually, he received a letter of welcome from Bishop Louis B. Kucera of Lincoln.
“Father Denis,” he wrote, “come! Come as to your own home. Healthy or sick! There will always be some kind of work here for you… Forget the past! Ours is a free land! Come, I will welcome you.” As 1948 began, Father Denis was in Lincoln.
Father Denis served parishes in Grafton, Cheney and Denton before being appointed to Arapahoe and Oxford. He longed to build a shrine, but first needed to raise funds to repair the church in Oxford. On Oct. 7, 1954, he celebrated a Mass of thanksgiving for the day he’d been saved 10 years before. As he was discussing the day with his housekeeper, a surprise visitor at the door offered to leave his land and estate to the church. Once that church was repaired, Father Denis could turn his sights toward the shrine, which was completed in August 1956.
“May she stand there forever,” Father Denis said, “with her prayer for peace, and her message for our prayers, for our penance, for our sacrifices, to preserve our life and our freedom. God bless America!”