A pilgrimage in Stirling, N.J., just 30 miles from New York City, the Shrine of St. Joseph describes itself as a place “where God, people and nature come together.”

Through every decade since it was founded in 1924, even as corporate America took over the farmlands in the vicinity, the hilltop shrine has maintained its rural atmosphere.

The nearby neighborhood developments melt from view once visitors turn into the shrine's entranceway onto roads that have been purposefully left as little country byways.

From the top of the hill, and from the deck of the shrine chapel, the view is breathtaking.

The panorama of Jersey's Watchung Mountains unrolls across the horizon. Closer by, and below the hilltop, the 7,500-acre Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge adjoins the shrine's grounds.

St. Joseph's itself covers nearly 40 carefully developed acres — with lawns, wooded paths and outdoor shrines, all places of meditation and reflection. Alarge crucifix accompanied by a bench, for example, is nestled among pine trees. Another pleasant spot is the area around a statue of St. Joseph's mother-in-law, St. Ann.

It's little surprise that daily visitors and groups of pilgrims call this a spiritual oasis and refuge. The shrine has “all that sense of escape, returning to God in nature,” explains the director, Father Peter Krebs, a member of the Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Trinity who staff the shrine.

Even the large chapel built of light-colored fieldstone in the 1970s tends to remind the visitor of God's presence in nature. Inside the chapel, a glass wall behind the sanctuary continues this theme, giving pilgrims a view that prompts them to meditate on God through the marvels of his creation.

The Roles of St. Joseph

The chapel's rough-hewn pews, with their saw-cut patterns left visible, call to mind that St. Joseph himself was a carpenter.

They also remind the visitor that the original chapel, which was later replaced by the current structure, was originally a hay barn before being transformed into a place of prayer.

In the chapel, the foster father of Jesus and husband of Mary is depicted with the two of them as the Holy Family, appropriately and beautifully carved of wood.

This is the only statue in the chapel so that the focus can be on the Blessed Sacrament, which is reserved here, and on celebrations of the Eucharist.

Off the chapel is the Hallway of the Saints. Here, the foremost among a procession of images is one that portrays Joseph as a handsome young man working with the tools of his trade.

The head of the Holy Family also greets pilgrims in his Worker statue on the front lawn, where he wears a carpenter's apron and planes a piece of wood.

In another of the shrine's several images of the saint, Joseph holds the child Jesus in the Carrarra-marble statue originally dedicated in 1924 by Father Thomas Judge, founder of both the shrine and the Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Trinity.

St. Joseph was a man of silence and contemplation, and also a man of action in the midst of the workaday world, a missionary in his own carpenter shop and small town. Likewise, this shrine is a combination of contemplative and active apostolates. The two foster each other here.

Every Catholic an Apostle

The founder's primary goal was to empower lay people: “Every Catholic to be an apostle,” he said. Father Judge, who died in 1933, also used to ask penitents in the confessional: “Would you like to do more for your God?”

The shrine staff provides the “spark and the opportunity” to do more, explains Father Krebs. Pilgrims are encouraged to become “missionaries in the daily providence of their lives.” They don't have to go off to other places in need, but can be missionaries in their own back yard. “A lot of the programming here is geared to that,” the priest says.

For those who live near and visit regularly, the shrine offers several specific programs to put these ideas into practice.

One is the “Friendly Visitor” out-reach, which matches up volunteers from the shrine with local visiting nurses. The volunteers provide company to people on the nurses’ rounds who can't get out much.

In another backyard missionary effort, the shrine joins with local churches to feed and house homeless families in the area, who, because of abandonment or lost jobs, need help to get back on their feet.

After all, even the Holy Family at times encountered hardships in finding places to stay.

Without fanfare, many simple workers have helped build the shrine. In the 1920s, for example, a group of women from Brooklyn donated the extensive Way of the Cross on the hillside. All were cashiers in the city's subway fare booths and organized themselves as a guild interested in the shrine.

More recently, the large shrine of Our Lady of Fatima, found between the chapel and the wildlife preserve, was constructed complete with statues, stone walls and landscaping by a visitor from Poland.

The brother of a nun who works at the shrine, he did the work single-handedly.

This is a “from-the-people kind of shrine,” says Father Krebs. “The grace, the miracle of the shrine is the love of the people coming here.”

They come for daily Mass, quiet meditation, and a day or evening of renewal.

The popular devotion to St. Joseph begins every Sunday at 3 p.m. and includes a holy hour and Benediction. Among special days, this June 26 the shrine celebrates its 75th anniversary.

Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.