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Portland Church Has Special Shrine for Cyclists

Patron Saint of Bike Riders Brings Blessing for Bikers

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Does your church have a bike rack? If you've ever looked around and had that sort of thing come to mind, you might be interested to hear about St. Stephen's Episcopal Parish in downtown Portland, which houses the only known shrine in the U.S. to the Madonna del Ghisallo – patron saint of cyclists.

Last fall, the church removed a section of pews to create an area in the 84-year-old church especially for cyclists. Riders of all types and all faiths are encouraged to use the space for contemplation of their travels, and to remember those who have been killed while riding. The Monday night dedication of the shrine in November 2009 saw 35 cyclists come out to take part in the event and to receive a blessing of their bikes.

The space is marked with candles that illuminate a 3x3-foot painting of the Madonna del Ghisallo by local artist Martin Wolfe, and a "ghost bike" that commemorates the life of art student Tracey Sparling, who was killed in 2007 and by extension, others who have been fatally injured while cycling. Sparling's bike was relocated to its shrine from its original location marking the site of her death on a crowded downtown street just a few blocks from the church.

"The shrine is a perfect place for it," Tracey Sparling's mother, Sophie told the Oregonian newspaper. "We're hoping that it will remind people about how important safety is -- for bicyclists, drivers, anybody who is on the road."

That reminder of cyclists' presence is as big a reason for the creation of the shrine as anything, said Ken Arnold, deacon at the church and one of those involved it is creation.

"While the religious aspect of the shrine is important, we thought having it would also be a good way to raise awareness of bikes and their presence on our streets among everyone who visits the church."

The most famous shrine to the Madonna del Ghisallo is in a small chapel high above Italy's Lake Como. It draws thousands of cyclists who pay homage to Madonna de Ghisallo, who was canonized by the Catholic Church in 1949 after being proposed by a local priest as the patron saint of cycling. The shrine in Italy contains a number of artifacts related to the sport, including the bicycle ridden by Fabio Casartelli, a native of the region, on the day that he was killed in a crash in the 1995 Tour de France.

Though it's not as famous (yet) as the original, St. Stephen's shrine is probably a smart move for an urban parish looking to attract members in a city that's perhaps as crazy about bikes as it is ambivalent about religion. Bike commuting in Portland has increased 275 per cent in the last 15 years, according to data from the U.S. Commerce Department and the U.S. Census Bureau.

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