While religious participation wanes in many places, the Basilica of the National Shrine of Mary, Queen of the Universe in Orlando, Florida, is breathtakingly alive. It’s a unique Catholic entity — a church built for tourists that began flooding into Orlando when Disney World opened on the southwestern outskirts of this sun-drenched city in 1971.

On Ash Wednesday this year, a morning and evening Mass and blessed ashes were offered throughout the day, drawing a steady stream of visitors. A young couple and their baby with ashes on their foreheads stood admiring the “Mother and Child” outdoor chapel. Manuel and Maria Camacho were on vacation, visiting from Mexico. While at Disney World’s Magic Kingdom earlier that day, they noticed one of the workers with ashes on her forehead and asked where she received them.

“We came here because we wanted the feeling you can only get when you take the ashes,” Maria said.

According to Manuel, they practice their faith even on vacation. “Our faith is important and makes us feel happy,” he said. “We want our boy to be happy and raised in it.”

Anne Rabasca from Orlando was headed to evening Mass from work. “I love it here,” she said. “I often come for Mass or adoration during lunch. For those of us who work nearby, we can always stop by and rest from all the craziness of the world.”

Brian Henderson, from Omaha, Nebraska, and Anthony Straszewski from Minneapolis walked into the basilica for Mass wearing business suits. “We don’t even know anything about this place,” Straszewski admitted. “We literally just walked out of a business meeting and Googled the nearest Catholic church.”

Both said they had texted their teenage and adult children, reminding them that Ash Wednesday was a good day to go to church. “Our mothers raised us well,” Henderson said with a laugh. “I’ve always gone on Ash Wednesday to set the stage for the Lenten season.”

A family of five from Orlando, Roger and Rebecca, and their young children, Bernadette, Bridget and Jacob, are regulars at the shrine although they belong to Holy Family parish. “We come here often,” Roger explained. “We like to celebrate Mass in the company of Catholics from all over the world. It’s nice realizing there are so many people that are like us.”

Vacationers, pilgrims, business travelers and locals are drawn to this place of refuge and worship, and even of miracles, according to Msgr. Joseph Harte, the shrine’s founder. “I believe I have seen miraculous healings,” the 89-year-old priest who served as rector until 2007 said in an interview with the Register. Among the miracles, he said, are many women healed from infertility after praying at the shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe inside one of the basilica’s two chapels.

Located within 15 minutes of Disney’s main attractions, the basilica has seating for 2,000 people, with an overflow space for another 1,000 faithful. During Easter weekend last year, 36,000 attended 12 Masses there; six in the church and six in a large outside tent that holds 1,800 people. There were also four additional Masses offered in the ballroom of one of the Disney hotels.

It all began with Msgr. Harte’s prayer. “Please help me, Blessed Mother,” he had prayed at the grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes in 1979. There were so many Catholics to care for at this vacation destination and nowhere to put them. “I asked Our Lady to take care of everything, and did she ever!”

Msgr. Harte had been appointed “director of tourism” by Bishop Thomas Grady in 1975. “I did not think running from hotel to hotel would be very enjoyable, but I loved it,” he said. “With so many people intent on getting the Eucharist, that strengthened my faith.” Posting fliers and getting hotel clerks to spread the word helped gather Catholics for Mass in hotel conference rooms. Sometimes as many as 700 people squeezed into a room meant for 200.

As tourism kept expanding, Msgr. Harte envisioned “a spiritual oasis” for the world. “It turned out even more beautifully than I originally envisioned,” he said.

The 56,000-square-foot, white stucco basilica is an architectural beauty surrounded by the Rosary Garden, the “Mother and Child” outdoor chapel, the shrine museum, a pilgrim center and a gift shop.

Within the basilica’s crafted bronze doors are many other works of art, including statues, oil paintings, stained-glass windows, a mahogany and multi-marbled holy water fountain, a life-size sculpture of Christ Crucified over the altar, Christ emerging from the tomb carved from linden wood, a Portuguese rose marble sanctuary, a tabernacle of rare Brazilian wood, and a white ash altar with bronze legs. A large pipe organ — the king of instruments — has just been purchased and is currently under construction behind the altar.

“It grew into this magnificent shrine,” Msgr. Harte said. “I give the Mother of God all the credit.”

Although the bishop had given his blessing for a shrine, there was no funding.

Catholics throughout the diocese contributed prayers, volunteering and fundraising, and visitors became part of the shrine family, donating and receiving newsletter updates.

Seventeen acres of undeveloped land was purchased in 1979, and the first church building opened in 1986, seating 750 people. It is now the gift shop. The main basilica’s first official Mass was on Jan. 31, 1993, with 3,000 attending, including cardinals, bishops, priests and delegations. Pope John Paul II had sent a papal blessing for “this house of pilgrimage” built near the House of Mickey.

Father Paul Henry, rector since 2011, was also around during the days of construction.

He, like Msgr. Harte and his twin brother, Father Peter Henry, came to Florida from Ireland. Father Paul Henry explained that there are three full-time priests assigned to the shrine and another half-dozen priests helping with confessions.

An estimated 27,000-30,000 confessions are heard annually, offered seven days a week, seven hours a day, except Sundays, when they are available for four hours after the five Masses. The shrine also relies on 400 volunteers.

“Hospitality is important here, so we work hard at it,” Father Henry said. “And it is very gratifying.”

Since the shrine is not a parish, whenever Father Henry asks who is visiting, he said that three-fourths of the hands go up.

“These days it’s lovely to see the faith is alive and God is very present in the Church,” Father Henry said. “Despite its struggles, the Church is still very holy.”

Patti Armstrong writes

 from North Dakota.