The Stations of the Cross Shrine is the visual and spiritual high point of San Luis, Colo., a tiny town that is the oldest in the state. Here lifelike, life-size meditations on Christ's final hours, created by local sculptor Huberto Maestas, walk the visitor through the painful moments at the pinnacle of salvation history in a most compelling and memorable way.
Each station sculpture is finished in bronze and each, on its own, is a treasure. Indeed, 2-foot renderings of each were presented to Pope John Paul II for the Vatican Museum; he received them with great warmth and enthusiasm. The site is popular not only with Catholics, but also Protestants and not a few pensive nonbelievers in search of meaning in their lives.
The hill on which the shrine was built is now called La Mesa de la Piedad y de la Misericordia, (The Plateau of Piety and Mercy), and hosts some 30,000 visitors each year. A parishioner of the nearby parish, Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ), explained the power behind the San Luis shrine experience: “You're going uphill, and you're surrounded by nature. The land is arid, and it's not an easy climb. With each station, you feel the immediacy of the sufferings of our Lord. And when you get to the top, you sense what it must have been like for him to be crucified on Calvary. It isn't like looking at the pictures on the wall of the church. You are there. You see what our Lord has done for us.”
The trail leading visitors along the way of sorrows is less than a mile long. Its leeward side ends at the Grotto of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which features pink sandstone carvings of the Virgin Mary and Juan Diego.
Work began on the shrine in 1988; the 14th station, the Burial of our Lord, is still under construction. Already completed is a stunning “15th station” that depicts Jesus ascending from his cross, one hand on the top of the cross and the other reaching up as though to his Father.
Maestas, whose studio is at the foot of La Mesa, is in steady demand for commissioned religious art projects across the country. He recently completed the Respect Life Memorial for the John Paul II Center at the Denver archdiocese pastoral center.
At the “summit of our salvation,” as visitors have taken to calling the area between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, there is a recent addition: La Capilla de
Todos los Santos — All Saints Chapel. Designed by local architect Arnie Valdez, the 1400-square-foot adobe structure was built by artists from the San Luis valley with assistance from workers who traveled from Mexico to lend a hand.
La Capilla seats about 70 people. It features an outdoor cloister with pink stonework from Mexico, carvings of saints important to San Luis.
To the west of La Capilla, the sunlit Knights of Columbus Education Building offers information on the religious and cultural history of the area, as well as details about the envi ronmental resources and ecological aspects of the region.
During pilgrimages and Lenten celebrations, there are processions from Sangre de Cristo Church in town, up the hill to La Capilla. Just west of the town is La Vega, or the commons, rich open space that will never be developed because it belongs to the people of San Luis, most of whom can trace their family lineage back farther than the town's charter in 1851. La Vega was the last of four land grants decreed by the king of Spain.
Latter times have been lean for residents here. Facing a future with limited resources (Costilla County, in which San Luis sits, is one of the poorest in the country), the people of San Luis built their remarkable shrine on faith.
“They are a people of few resources but strong faith,” explains Father Pat Valdez, Sangre de Cristo's pastor. “This shrine is an example of what can happen when people say Yes to God.”
Intensely proud of their heritage, San Luis residents will tell you quietly that not everyone responded to the shrine idea the same way. “You have to remember that the people who live here belong to the same families that were granted this land 150 years ago,” says a local businessman. “Some really didn't like the idea of having more visitors at first; they thought the town would change. But the people who come here are good, religious people. They are here to have a quiet experience. They're good folks to have in town.”
Ermino and Martha Romero, who were raised in the area but now reside in Colorado Springs, Colo., say they never miss a chance to pray at the shrine. “Before there was a shrine, there was nothing here,” says Martha as she stops to catch her breath on the rocky hillside. “Now people come here from all over the world.”
“This is not a wealthy town, by any means,” adds Ermino. “A lot of the people who are still here are struggling. But the Church and faith are at San Luis’ center, and it's been that way since the town began.”
After experiencing the power and beauty of the shrine, along with the faith and love of the locals, the Catholic traveler comes away wondering why anyone would call this one of the poorest towns in the country.
Seems to me it's one of the richest places in the world — and it's sure to be one of the holiest during Holy Week.
Susan Baxter is based in Creede, Colorado.