Missouri's Marian Marvel
The stately steeple of St. Martin's Church has stood watch over Starkenburg, Mo., for more than 100 years.
By now, it's as much a fixture in Gasconade County, the heart of Missouri's wine country, as the gently rolling hills and winding country roads.
St. Martin's also watches over a lovely historic monument to the Virgin Mary: the Shrine of Our Lady of Sorrows.
This place of prayer, pilgrimage and devotion got its start in 1847, when German settlers rowed up the Missouri River from nearby Hermann, Mo. Mass was first celebrated in the homes of settlers or, during the warm-weather months, in tobacco barns. At some point, a white plaster statue of the Blessed Mother was discovered in a nearby log church, spurring special Marian devotion and launching processions in honor of the “White Lady.”
In 1873, the parish, named after St. Martin, bishop of Tours, France — feast: Nov. 11 — constructed a stone church in which the White Lady could take up residence.
A few years later, the original statue was replaced with a more attractive figurine. The White Lady was stored in the rectory attic until May of 1888, when the sacristan, August Mitsch, found it. He placed it under a blossoming dogwood tree near the church. With the addition of a few candles, this natural canopy and altar to Our Lady became a place of devotion. Soon, a small log chapel was built to house the statue.
In 1890, a new statue of the Sorrowful Mother, adorned in a white veil, replaced the White Lady in the log chapel. The local community turned to this image of Mary, holding the body of her son, in their times of need.
Then, in 1894, fire broke out when a candle beneath the statue broke and fell.
The blaze consumed the altar linens and flowers, and it charred the altar. But, incredibly — perhaps miraculously — it stopped at the statue. When word spread, people began coming to the site in great numbers.
In 1902, Father George Hoehn, the pastor, began raising money to build a new chapel. Parishioners quarried the stone themselves, and, in 1906, construction began on the same site where August Mitsch had placed the White Lady under the dogwood years before.
Four years later, in a solemn procession and dedication, the White Lady came to her current home behind the main altar of this newly constructed shrine. The statue of the Sorrowful Mother was placed on a nearby side altar.
Evidence of Healings Past
As I walked through the heavy wooden doors of St. Martin's on my recent visit to the church and shrine, I felt like I was stepping back in time. I later learned that the church had been restored in 1993 to replicate its appearance in the early 1900s.
Once inside, I noted how the shiny, wooden floor creaked and interrupted the silence as I walked by the sturdy wooden pews. Sunshine gently radiated through the stained-glass windows and lit up the sanctuary.
The altar, lovingly crafted with detailed pillars, is a masterpiece of gold trim and fine woodwork. It is a fitting home for the tabernacle housing Our Lord. Angels stand guard on either side. Statues of the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph keep vigil from opposing sides of the church in equally beautiful side altars. I spent time before each and thought of all the petitions and prayers that have been sent from here to heaven over the years.
The shrine stands behind the church, down a short drive. Entering, I was welcomed by a striking image of the Virgin Mary painted on the sanctuary ceiling. Clearly, this is a place that was erected with great love for the Blessed Mother. The shrine is small, housing only 20 or so pews. The White Lady, enclosed in glass, looks out from behind the main altar.
Votive candles are lit near the side altar holding the statue of the Sorrowful Mother. An antique leg brace and child-size crutches, witnesses to the healing power of Our Lady's intercession, lean against this side altar. Numerous marble plaques hang on the columns around it. Etched in stone, they read, for example: “Mary helped, May 1937” and “Thanks to Mary for favors granted 1916.” Most plaques are in German, with dates more than 50 years old. As I read them, I was struck by these simple acts of thanksgiving.
A gravel path leads downhill to the Stations of the Cross, which wend their way through the woods. First constructed in 1889, the stations that stand today are embedded in sturdy, concrete pillars of white.
Continuing down the hill, I crossed a tiny creek on the path that leads to two grottos. The first honors Our Lady of Lourdes; the second is called Mount Olivet Grotto. It contains a statue of the Agony in the Garden. Both are impressive for their durable stone construction, demonstrating the skill and craftsmanship of local artisans.
My afternoon pilgrimage ended at St. Martin's — or, more specifically, at the museum inside the sacristy of the church. Several large, glass cases line a hallway. Tattered black-and-white first Communion photos, worn rosary beads and other interesting artifacts are carefully arranged and labeled inside. A faded picture of former pastors hangs on the opposite side of the cases.
A trove of memories, this tiny museum is an evocative tribute to the rich German heritage that made St. Martin's and Our Lady of Sorrows Shrine a special place of prayer for so many generations before us. We can hope and pray it will remain so for many generations to come.
Eddie O'Neill writes from St. Louis, Missouri.
- November 7-13, 2004