On a delightfully warm and sunny Monday morning in early June, I was driving with my father from our family’s ancestral estate in the bluff country of southwest Wisconsin to visit far-flung family in Nevada. It was a journey we conduct every few years — one of the highlights of our father-son relationship — but neither of us expected that it would start on such a spiritual high note, even after we prayed our morning Rosary.
An hour northwest of Boscobel, driving up Highway 14 and just entering the city limits of La Crosse, I spied a roadside sign indicating “Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe.”
Intrigued, we pulled into the driveway and encountered an oasis of Catholicism in the hilly Wisconsin countryside just west of the Mississippi.
We were warmly welcomed by a volunteer in the welcome center — and also warmly welcomed by the delicious scents wafting in from the Culina Mariana restaurant within.
Learning that the 11am Mass was about to begin, we sauntered up the trail leading to the shrine church, briefly stopping along the way to visit the Our Mother of Good Counsel Votive Chapel, which features 576 candles that pilgrims can request to be lit for set periods of time. We also visited the Memorial to the Unborn, a classically designed structure with a garden whose flowers evoke symbolisms associated with Our Lady (e.g., petunia, marigold, lily and pansy). We found several women praying silently within the memorial, in which babies who died before birth are interred. Fitting, given Our Lady of Guadalupe’s other title is Protectress of the Unborn.
Beautiful for Mary
Walking a bit further up the “Meditation Trail,” passing places of devotion that include the Stations of the Cross, we entered the church itself. It could have been transplanted from Rome. No expense was spared for Our Lady; the exquisiteness of the gilded and marbled interior is beautiful. The booming bass voice of the priest saying Mass reverberated throughout. Father Peter Fehlner is one of the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate to whose pastoral care the shrine is entrusted.
The architecture is a sort of Italianate style, the sunlight streaming in accentuating a light-colored interior with high-vaulted ceilings from which the crucifix is suspended above statues of angels and a copy of the famed image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. (To call it a painting would suggest that it was wrought by human hands, though nobody has been adequately able to explain how that was possible.) And everything is quite traditional: Although the priest said the Novus Ordo form of the Mass, the altar and communion rail can readily accommodate the traditional Latin Mass said at 9:30 each morning, Monday through Saturday.
After Mass, Dad and I walked around the church, which features original artworks of the highest quality as well as first-class relics of such saints as Gianna Molla, the Italian doctor who refused to abort her child when she knew it would save her own life, and Faustina Kowalska. The relic of St. Faustina, the Polish saint who died in 1938 and is best known for instituting the Divine Mercy Chaplet, consists of bone fragments that were brought to the La Crosse Diocese by Cardinal Raymond Burke.
Just named a cardinal, then-Bishop Burke founded the shrine while serving as bishop of La Crosse as a place of pilgrimage to deepen believers’ recognition of Our Lady’s message of mercy and love.
The cardinal, who remains director of the shrine although residing in Rome as prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, the Church’s supreme court, dedicated the first completed part of the shrine in December 2002 and dedicated the shrine church in July 2008 in a Mass concelebrated by Cardinals Justin Rigali of Philadelphia and Francis George of Chicago.
The shrine’s 80 acres were donated by the family of La Crosse priest Father John Swing; the remaining funds (about $25 million) for the shrine’s completion were given by private donors. The next phase of the shrine’s development includes a conference center to promote Marian understanding.
From Dec. 9 through 12, the shrine will host special events commemorating the appearances of Our Lady to St. Juan Diego in present-day Mexico City. But throughout the year, the shrine hosts many events to help deepen the faith, fervor and understanding of the faithful in devotion to the Mother of God.
Matthew A. Rarey writes from Chicago.
Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe
5250 Justin Road
P.O. Box 1237
La Crosse, WI 54602