A trek through rural Ohio's Mercer County will lead the pilgrim through what has come to be known as “the land of the cross-tipped churches.” The rural landscape here is marked by a continuous skyline of Catholic churches — large Gothic and Romanesque structures with soaring towers between 150 and 200 feet high, standing out in the midst of cornfields.

Towns with names such as St. Peter, St. Joseph, St. Henry, St. Sebastian, St. Rose, St. Anthony, St. Wendelin and St. Patrick, each named after the parish church, attest to the Catholic heritage of this bucolic region.

A vast number of churches, rectories, convents and schools were built in this area of west central Ohio between 1869 and 1915. By 1979, 64 of these buildings were placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The National Marian Shrine of the Holy Relics, owned and operated by the Sisters of the Precious Blood, serves as a prominent focal point for the vicinity, officially called the Cross-Tipped Churches of Ohio historical region. The shrine is located in a former convent of the sisters.

Settlers in this area were largely of German descent, most of them Catholic. In 1844 the Precious Blood Sisters came here from Switzerland. The square gatehouse to their property, built from locally fired brick, is recorded as the oldest building in Mercer County. This was also the site of their motherhouse until 1923 when they moved to urban Dayton, Ohio.

The first motherhouse, whose cornerstone was laid Nov. 16, 1845, was named Maria Stein in memory of the Swiss Benedictine Convent of that name. Maria Stein, translated from the German, means “Mary of the Rock.”

In 1843, Father Francis de Sales Brunner left Switzerland with his Precious Blood Missionaries for the New World, bringing along a beautiful painting of our Lady of the Rock, which had been given to him by the abbot of the Benedictine shrine in Switzerland.

During that trip, accompanied by Bishop John Baptist Purcell of Cincinnati, the ship was threatened by terrific storms at sea. When Father Brunner presented the painting for veneration the winds immediately subsided and the seas grew calm. Bishop Purcell attributed their rescue to the intervention of our Lady of the Rock.

The painting, which Father Brunner later placed above the high altar in the adoration chapel of the motherhouse, is now venerated in the relic shrine. The sisters say that during the last 150 years numerous miracles have been granted to pilgrims coming here to pray before the painting. It is a replica of a painting venerated at Mariastein, Switzerland, a famous pilgrim shrine in the Jura Mountains, near the city of Basel.

The Swiss shrine became a place of pilgrimage as a result of a 13th-century miracle. A young boy was accompanying his mother while she tended her sheep in the high Alpine mountains of the Jura. Full of curiosity, the boy peered over a precipice, lost his footing and fell some 130 feet into the ravine below.

Horrified, his mother set out to find her son's body, which she expected to find broken on the jagged rocks below. Instead she found him knitting a wreath of flowers, apparently uninjured.

The boy explained to his mother that when he fell a beautiful lady, shining like the sun, held her arms out and caught him, bringing him to safety below. She told him that she was the Mother of God and wanted a shrine to be built there in her honor.

Consequently, in 1636 a Benedictine priest built a monastery on the spot and called it Mariastein. The monastery quickly became a popular pilgrimage spot.

The Relic Collection

The shrine was founded in 1875 when Father J.M. Gartner, vicar general for the Milwaukee Diocese, entrusted his collection of relics to the sisters at Maria Stein.

In 1872 Father Gartner was sent to Rome on business. While there he learned that the churches of the Eternal City were being plundered by Italian banditti. Church articles, vessels, relics and other sacred objects could be found in pawn shops and street markets, sold to the highest bidder. Thus, Father Gartner thought it opportune to acquire a collection of sacred relics for the Church in America. Saving these relics from profane use and even desecration, he searched the shops of Rome for precious gems of the Catholic faith.

Returning to the United States, he first displayed his collection for veneration in New York, then Baltimore and Cincinnati. Father Gartner finally selected the convent chapel of the Precious Blood sisters in Maria Stein, Ohio, because of their practice of perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.

The first relic chapel, built at the convent there in 1875, was dedicated on the octave of the feast of All Saints, in honor of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The shrine's collection includes 1,100 relics, 500 of which are currently on display in beautiful Gothic-inspired reliquaries. The remaining 600 are stored in the sacristy.

The primary displays of relics are centered around the high altar and two side altars, all of which were hand-carved especially for this purpose. The relics are arranged within a number of niches, each containing several individually encased relics grouped around a central relic that is displayed in a monstrance.

The bones of the martyr St. Honoratus are displayed beneath the high altar. Four bones of St. Ursula and her companions, also displayed beneath the high altar, were given to Maria Stein by the cardinal archbishop of Cologne, Germany, in 1895.

Father Brunner donated the body of St. Victoria, which is now encased in wax and lying in a glass case beneath the side altar dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.Five beautiful stained-glass windows imported from Munich, Germany, and hand-carved altarpieces and railing also adorn the relic chapel.

When the present chapel was dedicated by Archbishop William Henry Elder in 1892, in the name of the Church he invoked the “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) whose remains are here, to erect in this shrine a “throne of grace to which pilgrims could bring their prayers.”

Michael Rose writes from Cincinnati.