In the Gospels, two travelers meet Jesus on the road to Emmaus shortly after his resurrection. And in the Southern Tier, motorists have recently met him — in a sense — on the road to Watkins Glen.
These encounters have occurred via a billboard depicting the Divine Mercy image. Since late January, it has been visible on the right-hand side of Route 14 heading south, about five miles north of the village, near Fox Run Golf Course. The sign was erected through the efforts of Schuyler Catholic Community parishioners, whose Divine Mercy devotion is also reflected in a nine-day novena that’s set to conclude on Divine Mercy Sunday, April 23.
According to Betsy Murch, a parishioner of the Schuyler cluster (St. Mary of the Lake, Watkins Glen, and St. Benedict, Odessa), the seed for erecting a billboard was planted last fall when she and some other women sighted a similar display near Seneca Falls while traveling to the Syracuse area.
“It was just so beautiful,” she recalled, adding that they saw the same billboard on the way home — and both times the group happened to be praying a chaplet to the Divine Mercy at the moment. This occurrence moved them to copy down a toll-free number from the display.
Murch then placed a call to Joe Cannon, a resident of Cleveland, Ohio, who in 2003 began a campaign to have Divine Mercy billboards erected around the country. To date his effort has netted more than 400 billboards. Murch said funds for the Route 14 sign were pooled together from more than 40 donors, mostly from the Schuyler cluster as well as other Southern Tier parishes and a few from out of state.
“I never expected that we would ever be able to put up a billboard. It was something, I think, that Jesus wanted. It just felt really good to be a part of something special,” Murch said.
The billboard’s shelf life has been indefinite almost from the beginning. Murch explained that the deal struck with the billboard company, Lamar Advertising, allows for the Divine Mercy image to remain until somebody else rents the space. Although that could have happened within a few days, the image — displaying the words “Jesus I trust in you!” — was still up as of early April meaning there was a good chance it would still be up on Divine Mercy Sunday.
Divine Mercy, held each year on the second Sunday of Easter, was established in 2000 by Pope John Paul II in honor of Sister Mary Faustina Kowalska, whom he canonized the same year. In 2002 the pope announced a plenary indulgence — a remission of the temporal punishment deserved for sins — for people who fully participate in Divine Mercy Sunday.
The day is observed by parishes worldwide and is often accompanied by novenas in the preceding days. Among the highlights of Divine Mercy services are confession; exposition of the Blessed Sacrament; Benediction; prayers for the unborn; and/or a chaplet — a series of prayers that uses the rosary.
Last year’s inaugural Divine Mercy novena at St. Mary of the Lake Church was quite successful, drawing anywhere from 20 to 50 participants over its nine days. The novena provides “an opportunity to deepen one’s awareness of spirituality. It draws them closer to Christ,” said Denis Amisano, a Schuyler parishioner. “Basically, what Christ wants us to understand is to trust him.”
Both novenas have been organized by Amisano and Father Austin Budnick, who is serving as celebrant all nine days of the current novena. Father Budnick, a Franciscan priest, has been a fixture in Schuyler County for more than half a century. He taught for many years at the former St. Anthony of Padua Minor Seminary and Prep School in Watkins Glen, and later operated an adult continuing-education free university there. The priest still lives part time on the Padua property and assists frequently in the two Schuyler churches. According to a recent parish bulletin, the Route 14 billboard was dedicated to Father Budnick, who will turn 81 on May 29.
Whereas many active Catholics are drawing closer to Jesus during the novena, the billboard links people to Christ regardless of their religious standing. Its famous Divine Mercy image depicts Christ as he is said to have appeared to St. Faustina, a Polish nun, on Feb. 22, 1931. In subsequent years St. Faustina had similar visions in which, she later said, Jesus requested a Divine Mercy feast to be established for the redemption of sinners. St. Faustina died in 1938 at age 33.
Murch said many parishioners have commented favorably on the sign, including one woman who “takes a different route to church each morning so she can see the billboard.” Then there are the many unknown travelers who have encountered the image.
“Something that powerful has got to have an effect on people,” Amisano said.
“There’s got to be hundreds of people every day who see it,” Murch said. “We won’t ever know in our lifetime if that sign was up there for one person, who received something spiritual that changed their life.”