Decades ago, the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town of Plain, Wis., was not so unknown to Midwestern Catholics. In fact, the aptly named village of just under 800 residents used to draw quite a crowd. The reason? The Shrine at St. Anne’s Hill.
Never heard of it? Don’t feel bad. Anymore, most who do not live here haven’t either. Even area locals can tell you all about the shrines at Dickeyville and Rudolph, the Shrine of St. Philomena and possibly the tomb of Venerable Samuel Mazzuchelli over in Benton. The Shrine at St. Anne’s Hill, though? That’s likely to draw blank stares.
Which is too bad, since the shrine provides a unique and pretty setting for prayer and pilgrimage, about three hours from Green Bay and four hours from Minneapolis.
The pilgrimage site got its start back in the early 20th century. In 1918, a tornado destroyed Plain’s Catholic church, St. Luke’s — the third time this had happened to a building on that site — it also killed the pastor.
After deciding to build the new church in a different location, the young new pastor, the cigar-smoking, bespectacled, German Shepherd-owning Father Charles Surges, also determined to build a shrine at the top of Council Bluff, so-called because area Indians once held their councils there.
As Father Surges wrote in his journal, "The scenery from earliest times and the height of the hill always suggested a shrine. Many visiting priests and others suggested a shrine. A greater reason suggestive of a place of pilgrimage was the spiritual benefits for those weary in soul and body who often seek help, relief and consolation in religion."
After the priest signed a 99-year lease for the property and pathway to it, work began in 1923 and finished in 1928.
The path leading from the cemetery to the top of the bluff follows an old cow trail. As Father Surges wrote, the cows’ "instinct … is certainly correct in finding the easiest way to the top of the hill."
A trip to the shrine begins with a visit to the 95-year-old St. Luke Church. With its beautiful Neo-Romanesque facade and gorgeous interior, it really is worth a look.
The first stop for the shrine, however, is the first Station of the Cross. Like the other 13 stations, it is a metal relief cast in zinc and handsomely painted.
From there, walk down the hill through the gates on the other side to find the walkway to the shrine proper.
The shrine itself is a quaint, hilltop chapel, hidden by trees, and one can only access it by using the aforementioned trail, which is lined with other Stations of the Cross, and cuts through a cow pasture on the edge of a cemetery.
As pilgrims begin the uphill journey, they will often see bovines meander up to the barbed-wire fence that borders each side of the path to investigate the strangers in their midst. Along the somewhat difficult walk to the bluff’s top, the faithful can rest at several stone benches strategically placed along the way.
The peace and serenity of this little chapel make the effort — perfect for a Lenten penance — well worth it.
Constructed from local rock and stones and lit by a series of specially created stained-glass windows, the first thing that strikes the pilgrim is its beauty. Next is the silence that envelops the visitor and provides an ideal setting for contemplative prayer.
In addition to statues of Sts. John Berchmans, Francis of Assisi, Thérèse, Charles Borromeo and Our Lady of Perpetual Help, the oratory holds a beautiful little painting of Our Lady of Ast — Ast is a small town in Bavaria.
Legend holds that, in 1409, builders of a shrine there found an image of Mary holding Baby Jesus in a felled tree’s branch ("Ast" means "tree branch").
The altar is surmounted with a statue of St. Anne and a young Mary.
On the return trip, take the path to the left of the chapel’s rear. This provides both an easier grade and a chance to visit the lovely Lourdes Grotto.
Some may say the shrine is nothing spectacular in worldly terms, but, in spiritual terms, it is out of this world.
Brian O’Neel writes from Coatesville, Pennsylvania.
St. Luke Catholic Church
1240 Nachreiner Ave.
Plain, WI 53577