LA CROSSE, Wis. — A shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe seems reasonable in Mexico where Mary appeared to St. Juan Diego in 1531. But why build one in La Crosse, Wis.?

For one thing, there is the fact that in 1531, there were no boundaries in the Americas at all, and Our Lady of Guadalupe is also called Our Lady of the Americas. And there is the fact that she appeared where there was human sacrifice to the Aztecs' pagan gods, and today Our Lady of Guadalupe is patroness of the pro-life movement.

As a result of Mary's apparitions, millions of Indians converted to the Catholic faith.

“We pray that with the building of the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe here in La Crosse, and the building of the church in particular, that a transformation will take place also in our own society,” Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis, the shrine founder and former bishop of La Crosse, said in his address at the shrine's ground-breaking May 13.

Our Lady of Guadalupe is “not well known outside of Mexico and the Southwest,” Archbishop Burke said. “And Wisconsin seems a good place to make it more known since it's in the northern part of the country and close to Canada.”

“It's also a question of God's providence at work,” he added, “the inspiration God gave me.”

But perhaps a part of the answer can also be found by looking through the eyes of a pilgrim.

Last year, Franciscan Sister of the Martyr St. George Christa Marie, director of the La Crosse shrine, was part of a group working on the project. She and others in the group, including Archbishop Burke, were on their way to the Mexico City basilica. During the flight, she sat next to Marina, a Panamanian who asked her to remember her grandson, Orlandito. The boy was less than 2 pounds when he was born and weighed only 5 pounds eight months later.

Archbishop Burke gave Marina and her family members his blessing and promised to pray. Marina told the archbishop she had “promised My Lady to work for the unborn, and I am involved with some friends in pro-life projects” in Panama.

Once back in La Crosse, Sister Christa Marie received e-mails from Marina filled with gratitude and hope. Orlandito's mother, Sara, was “deeply moved when I told her about the bishop's blessing,” she wrote. She said it gave them the support they needed “to feel God was with us.”

It also indicated her belief that Our Lady of Guadalupe and the new shrine in La Crosse would be part of Orlandito's life.

First Cure?

During the next few months, Marina said she experienced many “divine coincidences” between her and the shrine personnel. They resulted in Orlandito being brought to Minneapolis for surgery, arriving there in early December. Marina and other family members accompanied him. On Dec. 8, the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, Marina made a pilgrimage to the La Crosse shrine, three hours away, for her grandson.

The surgery two days later was successful and Orlandito has since returned to Panama and made rapid progress. While he remains blind from oxygen given after his birth, Marina believes “God will make a miracle [and Orlandito will one day see] because la Virgen de Guadalupe will ask him for it.”

While this is not miraculous on the level of a Lourdes-type of occurrence, it is a sign God is already working at a place where the church is not yet even in place. On May 13, in a pouring rain, Archbishop Burke returned to his old see to lead the groundbreaking for the new church. The rain, however, did not dampen his spirits.

“There's an Irish saying that the soul that is rained on is blessed by the rain,” the La Crosse diocesan newspaper, The Catholic Times, quoted him as saying.

That blessing will be needed. The shrine has faced many difficulties since it was first announced in 2000. Many people opposed it because, they said, the money raised could go to the poor or to parishes or schools. Others claimed Archbishop Burke was building a monument to himself.

But many detractors — and visitors from around the United States and Canada — have come to visit and gone away with feelings of peace and joy, like many other pilgrims who have been there as well, the archbishop said.

In his first pastoral letter to the diocese, he made it clear he wanted to build a shrine to Mary in the diocese, dedicated to Our Lady of Fatima. It was the publication of the 1999 apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in America (The Church in America), in which Pope John Paul II emphasized the role of Our Lady of Guadalupe in the New World, that convinced the bishop to dedicate it to Mary under that title.

The church, which is expected to cost $16 million out of a projected $26 million for the entire project, is one that will evoke Old World Europe. Local architect Michael Swinghamer of River Architects is being joined by Duncan Stroik of South Bend, Ind., who has charge of designing the interior of the church.

Being built on bluff-side land donated by the Swing family, the family of diocesan priest Father John Swing, the shrine features a pilgrim center and votive shrine to Our Lady of Good Counsel. Eventually it will have a convent for an order of contemplative nuns, a rec-tory and a site for the Marian Catechist movement started by Jesuit Father John Hardon and taken over by Archbishop Burke after Father Hardon's death.

It is difficult, the archbishop admitted, to be away from La Crosse with construction going on.

“But we have to have a detachment from these things,” he said.

Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz writes from Altura, Minnesota.