A soft mist is dancing across the surface of St. Anne Lake as I nose my rental car down the street toward its blue waters.
An old shrine to St. Anne, mother of the Virgin Mary, is located somewhere along the lake. One online review says it’s sad and crumbling, nothing worthy of a stop; but other reviewers say it has a sacred air. I’m here to decide for myself.
When I reach the lake, I turn right. St. Anne Shrine Road loops around the water, which forms almost a perfect circle. Thirty or so homes sit across the road from the lake, interspersed with pieces of the shrine to St. Anne des Lacs, or St. Anne of the Lakes.
The shrine and likely at least a few of the homes I’m passing were constructed in the early 1920s by a small group of French Canadian Catholics. These “snowbirds” wanted to find a warm place to spend their winters, while bringing a piece of their faith with them.
The shrine originally consisted of a small white chapel, where Mass was celebrated Sundays during the winter, as the French Canadians brought a priest along with them. Over time, mainly through the leadership of Napoleon Pelletier, one of the Canadian snowbirds, and Father A.J. Salois, pastor of neighboring Holy Spirit Catholic Church, the shrine grew to include a replica of the Lourdes grotto, a monument to St. Thérèse of Lisieux (the Little Flower), Stations of the Cross and more.
In 1926, French artist Francies Marsollier showed up at the lake, his young son in tow. Marsollier’s son had tuberculosis, and the artist prayed that if his son was saved, he would help beautify the shrine.
His son recovered, and Marsollier quickly covered the chapel walls with ornate murals, plus created elaborate sculptures to adorn the chapel and grounds.
Stories of miraculous healings in the lake’s waters began circulating, and people streamed to the shrine. Formal pilgrimages began in 1928 and soon were held twice annually: once in February, in honor of Our Lady of Lourdes, and once in July in honor of St. Anne (her shared feast day with husband Joachim is July 26). Mass was offered during the pilgrimages, along with veneration of the relics of St. Anne. (Two authentic relics of the saint were housed at the shrine, along with two pieces of the True Cross.) By this time, St. Anne was formally designated a mission by the Diocese of St. Augustine.
But in 1940, nearly two decades after its creation, disaster struck. Father Salois was transferred to another town, and then the United States and Canada were thrust into World War II.
The French Canadians and their priests stopped traveling to Florida for the winter; the shrine and chapel remained shuttered.
Around the early 1960s, the shrine all but forgotten, its chapel was de-sanctified and torn down, save for the front steps, and the statuary removed.
The Shrine Today
I pull over on the side of the road near an eye-catching monument jutting out into the lake. Colorful tiles are set above its stone base, and four pillars rise up to support an arched dome with a conical top.
An empty pedestal sits in the center; it once held a statue of St. Christopher and was accessible by two stone bridges, which met in a “V” at the structure’s base. Today a tiny white bench is set in a niche within an adjacent stone wall so visitors can sit in silent contemplation.
A woman emerges from one of the homes, so I ask permission to walk out onto her pier for a better vantage point from which to snap a photo of the monument, beautifully mirrored in the lake’s sparkling waters. She waves me ahead, warning me to watch out for some nails poking up out of the boards.
Although there is no statue on the pedestal today, I can easily picture the French Canadians — who traveled hundreds of miles back and forth between Canada and Florida — thanking the patron saint of travelers every time they safely arrived and praying for safe travels upon their departure.
It appears this one structure is all that’s left of the shrine — an erroneous assumption often made by visitors — until I spy what appears to be an empty plot of land next to the woman’s home.
A white cross sits in the center of its grassy expanse; when I walk up to it, I see a grotto tucked in the back.
The grotto, simply, is magnificent. Intimately nestled within an oak hammock, with green veils of Spanish moss softly fluttering from tree branches, the structure soars 40 feet skyward.
A moat forms a semi-circle in front; visitors access the grotto by crossing an arched bridge created from Florida rock and emblazed with an oval mosaic of a golden crown and the letters “ND” (for Notre Dame, or Our Lady).
I cross the bridge, and more artwork comes into view.
Ave Maria is written in green tiles and edged with daisies; French fleur-de-lis line the space behind the altar (placed there by the Knights of Columbus) and the grotto’s niche. Although the statuary that once decorated it is long gone — some pieces reside at Holy Spirit Church; others are lost — the faithful have refilled it with a variety of items, including a cross, Marian statues, rosaries, flowers, candles and more. A small kneeler is set out in front.
The outer portion of the grotto is adorned with the familiar statues of St. Bernadette kneeling and gazing up at the Virgin Mary.
Although the statues are chipped and dirty, the expressions on the women’s faces, especially that of St. Bernadette, are powerfully tender.
Behind and to the left is the shrine to Thérèse of Lisieux, which consists of a large set of tiered concentric circles with a pillared backdrop. The original statue gone, a small replacement is set on top.
As I walk along the grounds, birds merrily chirp, and small acorns fall from the trees above onto the stonework.
It’s quiet and very peaceful, yet there’s a much richer feeling here.
The intense love of the French Canadians who created the shrine a century ago is palpable, as is the love of all those who worshipped here in the past. It’s easy to see why neighborhood residents, some of whom are not even Catholic, carefully tend to the shrine and its surroundings. Because, clearly, this is a sacred place.
Melanie Radzicki McManus
Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.
IF YOU GO: Head east out of Lake Wales for six miles along Highway 60, then turn right on St. Anne Shrine Road. Every year on Easter Sunday, sunrise Mass is celebrated at the grotto.