Underwater Crucifix Draws Hundreds to Frozen Michigan Lake

The underwater monument is a touching remembrance of divers who have died in Michigan waters

(photo: YouTube)

It was cold on Saturday morning, March 9 in Petoskey, Michigan – it's been a cold winter, to be sure – but that didn't stop an estimated 1,200 of the faithful and the curious from venturing out onto the frozen ice of Lake Michigan, then trekking 800 feet from shore to peer through a hole in the five-foot-thick ice. There, clearly visible with the help of underwater lighting and a tent that shielded from the sun's rays, was a giant crucifix.

What was it doing down there, 22 feet below the surface in the cold waters of Little Traverse Bay?


The Sad Origins of the Petoskey Crucifix

Carved in Italy by local artisans, the 11-foot, 1,850-pound white marble crucifix was commissioned by a wealthy farming family from Rapson, an unincorporated town near Bad Axe, in Michigan's Thumb area. Their 15-year-old son, Gerald Schipinski, had been accidentally killed in a shotgun accident on the family farm, and Schipinski's parents selected the crucifix to be placed on his gravesite.

However, the crucifix was badly damaged while being transported via ship across the ocean; and when it arrived, the parents – seeing its arms broken off and other damage sustained while at sea – refused to accept it. To return it to Italy, where it had been created, would have been cost-prohibitive; so it was set out for a single season at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Rapson. The following year, it was put up for an insurance sale.


A Second Life for the Damaged Crucifix

The damaged crucifix was purchased for only $50 by the Wyandotte Superior Dive Club, from the Detroit downriver suburb of Wyandotte. The club wanted the crucifix to become a diving destination, commemorating Charles Raymond, a diver from Southgate, Michigan who drowned in nearby Torch Lake. Later, the club expanded its remembrance to include all divers who have lost their lives in Michigan's waters.

The diving club repaired the crucifix at a cost of approximately $900; and on Aug. 12, 1962, carried by the U.S. Icebreaker Sundew, the crucifix was dropped into the waters 1,200 feet offshore from the Petoskey breakwall.

But the crucifix hadn't yet reached its final resting place. Divers found that its location, 55 feet below the water's surface, made for a difficult dive; so in 1984 it was moved to its current location, only 800 feet from shore and 22 feet deep. There, it has remained a popular dive site.

Every year on one Saturday in February or March, if the ice is firm, the public is invited to cross the ice to see the crucifix for themselves. For the past few years, the ice has been unstable, and visitors have not been welcomed to the site. In 2015, the last year in which the statue was seen by the public, the Emmet County Sheriff's Office Dive Team reported that a record 2,021 local and international visitors stood in line for two and a half hours to see the crucifix and to pray.