For centuries, seafarers and landlubbers alike have placed their faith and trust in the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary under the title of Stella Maris, which means Star of the Sea.
This fascinating devotion has been a source of comfort and protection for those who brave the tumultuous waters of the world’s oceans. In honor of the Feast of Our Lady, Star of the Sea, which is observed every year on September 27, join us on a voyage into the history, meaning, symbolism, and miracles associated with the enigmatic devotion of Stella Maris.
♦ Origin and History ♦
The earliest known reference to the title Stella Maris comes from St. Jerome, who used it to describe the Virgin Mary in his translation of the Bible. However, it was not until the Middle Ages that the devotion of Stella Maris became popular among sailors.
The Carmelite order, which had a strong presence in the seafaring regions of Europe, played a significant role in promoting the devotion of Stella Maris. In the 13th century, the Carmelites built a chapel dedicated to Our Lady Star of the Sea in Aylesford, England. This chapel became a pilgrimage site for sailors who sought the protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary during their voyages.
Imploring the Virgin Mary for help amid a hopeless situation goes back to the earliest days of the Church, and Star of the Sea has been used as one of her titles more than a thousand years.
Mary is believed to intercede as a protector of seafarers, but the name is also a symbolic reference to Mary’s role as a “guiding star.”
♦ Meaning and Symbolism ♦
September 27th is the feast day on which the Catholic Church honors Our Lady, Star of the Sea. She is considered the patroness of seafarers, sailors, and even the U.S. state of Hawaii. But there’s much more to this beautiful Marian devotion.
The title Stella Maris reflects the idea that Mary is a guiding star for those who navigate the storms of life. The sea has long been associated with danger and uncertainty, and sailors have traditionally looked to the stars for guidance. In the same way, Mary is seen as a beacon of hope and safety for those who face the challenges of life.
The image of Mary as a star also has biblical roots. In the Book of Revelation, the apostle John sees a woman “clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars” (Rev 12:1). This woman is often identified as Mary, and the twelve stars are thought to represent the twelve apostles.
In the 9th century, for example, Paschasius Roberts wrote that Mary is the “Star of the Sea” to be followed on the way to Christ, “lest we capsize amid the storm-tossed waves of the sea.”
And, in the 12th Century, St. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote: “If the winds of temptation arise; If you are driven upon the rocks of tribulation, look to the star, call on Mary; If you are tossed upon the waves of pride, of ambition, of envy, of rivalry, look to the star, call on Mary. Should anger, or avarice, or fleshly desire violently assail the frail vessel of your soul, look at the star, call upon Mary.”
♦ Miracles and Devotions ♦
Over the centuries, many miracles have been attributed to the intercession of Our Lady Star of the Sea.
One famous example is the story of St. Francis of Assisi, who was sailing from Venice to Dalmatia when his ship was caught in a violent storm. The sailors on board were terrified, but St. Francis remained calm and led them in prayer to Our Lady. Suddenly, the storm subsided, and the ship was able to continue its journey safely.
There are several religious orders that are dedicated to Stella Maris. One such order is the Missionaries of the Sea, which was founded in 1920 by Father Bruno Hagspiel.
The Missionaries of the Sea are dedicated to providing spiritual and material assistance to seafarers around the world. They work to improve the working and living conditions of seafarers, to offer them pastoral care and to promote their rights and dignity.
♦ Prayers ♦
A common devotion associated with Stella Maris is the Novena to Our Lady Star of the Sea. This novena is traditionally prayed for nine consecutive days before embarking on a journey. It includes prayers for protection, guidance, and a safe return home.
One of the most beloved prayers dedicated to Stella Maris is titled Ave Maris Stella (Hail Star of the Sea). This ancient prayer is attributed to Venantius Fortunatus (530-609), and here we present it line by line in its original Latin followed by English translation:
AVE maris stella, Dei Mater alma, atque semper Virgo, felix caeli porta.
HAIL, O Star of the ocean, God’s own Mother blest, ever sinless Virgin, gate of heav’nly rest.
Sumens illud Ave Gabrielis ore, funda nos in pace, mutans Hevae nomen.
Taking that sweet Ave, which from Gabriel came, peace confirm within us, changing Eve’s name.
Solve vincula reis, profer lumen caecis mala nostra pelle, bona cuncta posce.
Break the sinners’ fetters, make our blindness day, Chase all evils from us, for all blessings pray.
Monstra te esse matrem: sumat per te preces, qui pro nobis natus, tulit esse tuus.
Show thyself a Mother, may the Word divine born for us thine Infant hear our prayers through thine.
Virgo singularis, inter omnes mites, nos culpis solutos, mites fac et castos.
Virgin all excelling, mildest of the mild, free from guilt preserve us meek and undefiled.
Vitam praesta puram, iter para tutum: ut videntes Iesum semper collaetemur.
Keep our life all spotless, make our way secure till we find in Jesus, joy for evermore.
Sit laus Deo Patri, summo Christo decus, Spiritui Sancto, tribus honor unus. Amen.
Praise to God the Father, honor to the Son, in the Holy Spirit, be the glory one. Amen.
♦ Shrines and Churches ♦
Although this beautiful Marian title has a universal, symbolic meaning, it’s only natural that Stella Maris is closely associated with the sea and maritime activities.
Throughout history, sailors and fishermen have turned to this devotion for protection and guidance as they navigate the dangers of the ocean. As a result, churches, chapels, and shrines dedicated to Stella Maris can be found in many coastal communities around the world.
One of the most famous Stella Maris shrines is located in Haifa, Israel. This magnificent building, which is run by the Carmelite Order, sits on a hill overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. It is believed that the shrine was built on the spot where Elijah the prophet ascended to heaven in a chariot of fire.
Today, the shrine is a popular destination for both pilgrims and tourists alike, who come to admire the stunning views and to pay homage to Our Lady Star of the Sea.
Another notable Stella Maris shrine can be found in the seaside town of Sliema in Malta. This beautiful chapel, which was built in the early 20th century, is dedicated to the Virgin Mary under her title of Our Lady Star of the Sea. It is a popular place of worship for both locals and visitors, who come to light candles and say prayers for loved ones lost at sea.
In the United States, there are several churches dedicated to Stella Maris. One of the most well-known is located in Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey. The church, which was built in 1940, is run by the Paulist Fathers and is a popular destination for visitors to the Jersey Shore. It is particularly popular with fishermen, who come to pray for a good catch and for protection while out on the water.
♦ Basilica in Key West ♦
With a long maritime history that’s been home to explorers, pirates, sailors, salvagers, and fishermen, the island town of Key West, Florida seems a fitting place for devotion to Stella Maris.
Jutting out into the ocean at the end of the Florida peninsula, Key West is considered the southernmost tip of the United States. Rising above the coconut palms and historic homes (including Hemingway’s former abode) is the Basilica of St. Mary Star of the Sea.
Built in 1904, St. Mary Star of the Sea is what’s known in the Catholic Church as a Minor Basilica. It features slatted shutters to catch the ever-constant sea breeze and sits on lush tropical grounds. Behind the altar is a stained-glass window that depicts Our Lady as Stella Maris.
The Basilica of St. Mary Star of the Sea is a stunning example of Gothic Revival architecture and is an icon in the popular town of Key West, Florida. The Basilica’s rich history spans over a century and a half and has played an important role in the spiritual and cultural life of the local community.
The Basilica belongs to one of the oldest Catholic parishes in the state of Florida, and the oldest parish in the Archdiocese of Miami. Although the first Catholic presence in the Florida Keys was established by Spanish Jesuits in 1566, it took 300 years for anything permanent to take hold.
In 1851, Rev. John F. Kirby left the Diocese of Savannah and established St. Mary Star of the Sea parish in Key West. The first permanent Catholic Church on Key West was dedicated in 1852, but the present structure was built in 1905 after the original one was destroyed in a fire.
At that time, the Catholic community in Key West was served by a small wooden church that had been built in 1852. However, as the population of the town continued to expand, it became clear that a larger and more impressive church was needed.
In 1860, the Bishop of Savannah, Georgia, visited Key West and decided that a new church was needed. He commissioned a young Irish architect named Thomas Reed to design a new church that would reflect the grandeur of the Catholic faith. Reed, who had studied architecture in his native Ireland, was a skilled designer who was well-versed in the Gothic Revival style that was popular at the time.
Reed’s design for the new church was ambitious and impressive. It featured soaring arches, intricate carvings, and elaborate stained glass windows that would create a sense of awe and wonder in all who entered. Construction on the new church began in 1865, and it was completed three years later at a cost of $100,000 (equivalent to nearly $2 million today).
The new church, which was named St. Mary Star of the Sea, was an immediate hit with the local community. Its stunning beauty and impressive scale made it a symbol of the power and prestige of the Catholic Church in Key West.
Five sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary from Quebec, Canada arrived at the parish in 1868 to establish a convent and open a school for girls, the latter of which was the first Catholic School in the state of Florida.
Over the years, the church continued to play an important role in the spiritual and cultural life of the community. It was the site of numerous weddings, funerals, and baptisms, and it was also a gathering place for social and cultural events.
Over time, however, the church began to show signs of wear and tear. Hurricanes and the salty tropical air took their toll on the building, and it became clear that major renovations were needed. In the 1950s, the church was extensively renovated and updated.
Today, the Basilica of St. Mary Star of the Sea is one of the most impressive and important landmarks in Key West. Its stunning architecture, impressive stained glass windows, and ornate carvings continue to awe and inspire visitors from around the world. And its rich history and cultural significance make it a cherished symbol of the spiritual and cultural heritage of this vibrant and diverse community.
♦ Protection From Hurricanes ♦
In the centuries before weather radar was invented, a common fear among sailors was being caught-off guard by a direct hit from a hurricane/cyclone. The results were almost always catastrophic, and residents of islands like Key West naturally shared the same fear.
Built in 1922 by Father John W. O’Farrell, Key West’s Our Lady of Lourdes grotto has a rich history of being a place of prayer for safety from hurricanes.
Located adjacent to the Basilica of St. Mary Star of the Sea in Key West is an impressive replica of the famous grotto in Lourdes, France, where Our Lady appeared to Bernadette Soubouris in the 1850’s.
Father O’Farrell had a great devotion to Our Lady of Lourdes and was inspired to build the grotto after visiting the original grotto during a trip to Europe. He wanted to create a place of pilgrimage for the Catholics in Key West, and, as he envisioned, the grotto became a focal point for prayer and devotion.
Throughout the years, the grotto has been a place of solace and comfort for those seeking protection when devastating hurricanes threaten to hit Key West. Many of Key West’s residents, with their long history of experiencing hurricanes, have turned to the Our Lady of Lourdes grotto for help during these times of crisis.
In 1935, a Category 5 hurricane struck Key West, causing widespread destruction and loss of life. The grotto was one of the few structures that remained standing, and many people believed that it was due to the intercession of Our Lady of Lourdes. After the hurricane, the grotto became a symbol of hope and resilience for the local people as they toiled to rebuild Key West.
In 1960, Hurricane Donna, another Category 5 hurricane, was bearing down on Key West. For the local residents, there seemed to be no hope and no escape. The people of Key West turned to the grotto once again. They held a procession around the grotto, praying for God’s protection from the storm. The hurricane eventually turned north and spared Key West from the worst of the storm.
Key West has been seemingly spared by many other impending hurricanes through the years, and the grotto continues to be a place of prayer and devotion for local residents.
Every year, on the Sunday before the start of hurricane season, the Basilica of St. Mary Star of the Sea holds a special Mass and procession around the grotto, asking for Our Lady’s intercession and God’s protection during the upcoming hurricane season.
In recent years, the grotto has also become a popular tourist attraction, with visitors coming from all over the world to see this beautiful replica of the original grotto in Lourdes. But for the people of Key West, the grotto will always be a place of prayer and devotion, especially during times of crisis, and a symbol of hope and resilience.
Shaded by coconut palms and cooled by the ever-present tropical tradewinds, the miraculous grotto adds an extra element of beauty to the already-stunning Basilica of St. Mary Star of the Sea.
On February 11, 2012, the church was raised to a minor basilica by Pope Benedict XVI, who wrote this lovely reflection about Stella Maris in his encyclical letter, Spe Salvi:
“For over a thousand years, the Church has greeted Mary, the Mother of God, as ‘Star of the Sea’: Ave Maris Stella…Life is like a voyage on the sea of history, often dark and stormy, a voyage in which we watch for the stars that indicate the route…Who more than Mary could be a star of hope for us?”
♦ The Basilica’s Coat of Arms ♦
The coat of arms of the Minor Basilica of Saint Mary Star of the Sea incorporates key elements reflecting the nature of the parish.
The position of the sand indicates that this parish was the beginning of the Archdiocese of Miami and is at the end of it, while the conch shell is the traditional symbol of Key West.
The Star above the conch shell is for the basilica’s patroness, and, above the ombrellino, the cross stands on a conch pearl.
The Motto SPE SALVI introduced Pope Benedict XVI’s second Encyclical Letter with the same title “SPE SALVI facti sumus” (in hope we were saved).
Pope Benedict XVI concluded SPE SALVI with a comprehensive reflection on our Patroness, Stella Maris, Mary Star of the Sea.
♦ Navigating Life’s Waters ♦
Stella Maris is a powerful Catholic devotion that has provided comfort and protection to sailors and fishermen throughout history.
Its popularity has led to the creation of many churches, chapels, and shrines around the world, as well as religious orders dedicated to the care and support of seafarers.
These places of worship and service are a testament to the enduring power of faith and the deep connections between religion and the sea.
The devotion of Stella Maris has been a source of comfort and protection for seafarers for centuries. It reflects the idea that Mary is a guiding star for those who navigate the storms of life and has been associated with many miracles over the years.
Whether we are sailors on the high seas or travelers on the journey of life, we can all look to Our Lady Star of the Sea for guidance and protection.
♥ Star of the Sea devotional items ♥