Frank & Shirley Schilling were successful business owners looking to support their local parish when they bought land for St. John the Evangelist Parish in St. John, Ind., 11 years ago. The Schillings had in mind the access parishioners would have to the nearby Marian Wayside Shrine, a shrine to Mary built by Frank Schilling’s grandfather.
But they couldn’t have guessed that their plot of land would become the site of an even larger shrine, The Shrine of Christ’s Passion. Nor could they have predicted the shrine’s draw, with an estimated quarter-million visitors projected to visit this year alone.
Its popularity may have something to do with the attention to detail in the 18 narrated scenes of life-sized bronze sculptures depicting the last hours of Christ’s life that comprise the shrine. It may have to do with the setting of those scenes in a backdrop painstakingly crafted to replicate the landscape of the Holy Land. The Schillings would say it’s more than that.
They credit the Holy Spirit with directing and providing during every step of the shrine’s creation and beyond. And they’re eager to have others experience the Holy Spirit’s inspiration through what they call “the journey” of the shrine’s winding half-mile trail.
Frank Schilling spoke with Register correspondent Lara Krupicka.
Where did you first get the idea to build The Shrine of Christ’s Passion?
It started 11 years ago. St. John the Evangelist Parish decided they needed to build a new church. And I was approached by the parish’s new priest, Father Sammie Maletta, to find a suitable place to build the new church in St. John. He asked me because I’m also a land developer, and I’m pretty familiar with all the acreage that’s available.
He drove by the statue of Our Lady on Rte. 41, and he saw 150 acres of farmland. He noticed a hill. He said, “That’s where the church should go. That way we’re looking down on Our Lady.”
Father Maletta had an idea for the church to be built on top of the hill, and with that in mind, the prayer trail was conceived. I would drive around with the idea of building a prayerful path that would possibly include the Stations of the Cross. We looked all over, Father, Shirley and I. In the back of my mind, I always wanted to create the stations in bronze. I wanted it to be a real-life experience that would really make a difference as people continue on that prayer trail.
There’s something of a legacy for you in building this shrine, yet you hadn’t planned it that way. Can you explain?
Father Maletta planned to build the church. He picked that particular area. It used to be my grandfather’s farm. But, to think, 40 years ago they sold it. And here we had the opportunity to buy the farm back and put the church right on top of the hill looking down on the shrine to Our Lady — a shrine built by my grandfather many years ago.
When I was a little boy, we’d take this road from the shrine to Our Lady back across the old wooden bridge up to the homestead. That homestead was where my mother lived, and my grandfather. So it’s amazing to think 55 years after my grandfather built the shrine to Our Lady that this came about.
Award-winning Chicago television journalist and producer Bill Kurtis’ voice narrates a story and meditation at each of the scenes at the shrine. How did you get such a notable person to provide the narration?
It was a miracle. It was Shirley’s idea. We knew as we got closer to completion that we’d have audio at each scene. Everyone asked who’s going to be the voice. Shirley said, “Bill Kurtis should do it.” Everybody laughed.
We composed a letter, and Shirley sent it to him. We told him the story: that we were very blessed and we wanted to give back, so we were building the shrine. We explained everything and said that there was audio at each station and asked if he would be the voice.
He called two months later and told Shirley he’d do it. He used his studio to record it and didn’t charge us anything. We’re quite privileged to have him be the voice. It’s very recognizable. People from all over recognize that voice.
Not everyone can simply build a shrine, particularly one as involved as this one. What kind of challenges did you face in undertaking this project?
It was so huge. It was overwhelming. At first, a lot of people who worked here just didn’t get it. Things need to be done right. This is done for the Lord. Everything’s got to be done right.
There were a lot of things going on that didn’t meet what I felt it should be. It was disheartening. As time went on, I think they realized it had to be done a certain way, with what I envisioned. They did get on board.
Each year, however, you could see a change in the subcontractors that were working on it. They spared no labor in trying to make sure everything was as perfect as possible. It was amazing: concrete, masonry, electricians — everyone put their best in making sure that this is one of the most successful projects done.
There were times I would say, “I can’t do this. It’s too much.” I was running another company and then doing this. It consumed half my hours of the day. But it was well worth it. We got through it. God was challenging us. It was a good challenge. It’s very rewarding that we were fortunate enough to be able to do it.
How have you been changed by the journey of building the shrine?
We’ve learned a lot. It has changed Shirley and me. I believe we are more spiritual than we were before undertaking this huge project. It started years ago. The more we worked on it, the more we looked at each other and said, “How are we going to get this thing completed?” We didn’t worry about the money. We knew it would come. Not through donations. My wife and I, financially, were able to complete the project. We didn’t know how it was going to happen. But our company is very successful, and we continue to do well in a terrible construction environment. We’re very blessed there.
I’ve heard it said that you credit the Holy Spirit with directing many of your plans for the shrine. How is that?
I always know it’s got to be the Holy Spirit. Like, my wife and I never took a road trip. Usually our destinations are by plane. But Shirley wanted to see Santa Fe. She likes driving. I like sightseeing. So she drove, and I just observed the nature of everything out there. On our way to Santa Fe, through the panhandle of Texas, we discovered these bronze sculptures like we had been looking for — for years. And here it was. But we didn’t make the decision.
Usually if you’re on a vacation, you don’t backtrack the same way. We were going to take a northern route. But there was the Holy Spirit saying, “Change your plans. Go back.” So we decided to come back the same way and find out who this artist was: Mickey Wells. And that’s the beginning of the story of changing it from a woodchip path with stone Stations of the Cross to what we consider one of the most dramatic settings to experience the Passion.
St. John, Ind., is an unlikely place for a spiritual pilgrimage — and yet here it is.
It is incredible. The town’s name is St. John. It was a German-Catholic settlement. The name of the church is St. John the Evangelist — tying Mary with the Church. Like Jesus said on the cross: Behold your Mother. And your son. And here is St. John, taking the place of her son. That is why we honor Mary. So here it is: the shrine to Mary my grandfather built 55 years ago. St. John the Evangelist Church on top of the hill. And this here. It’s amazing. Who would ever think?
Your mission in creating the shrine is exemplified by the shrine’s slogan: “Where lives are changed one soul at a time.” Do you see this happening?
There are men who don’t want to come here with their wives. They say, “No, no. That’s not my kind of thing.” And then they come. It has changed them. They walk out with tears in their eyes. They get it.
It’s like before [people think]: We understood it, but it didn’t make that impact in our lives. Oh, yeah, Jesus suffered and died for us. I’ll try to be good. But when you come through this, it will change your heart. It will change your soul. You take the journey of the prayer trail.
I believe that people’s souls are alive from their experience. Before they come, they could almost say they were dead, but they didn’t know it. It lifts their spirits. When they walk through the visitor center afterward, they are on fire.
Lara Krupicka writes from Naperville, Illinois.