Rosary Call for Cornhuskers

Cold, wind and rain greeted prisoners of the Dachau concentration camp for the 6 a.m. roll call Oct. 7, 1944. Death came, too, guards dragging into line the corpses of prisoners who had died during the night.

Joining them, alive, was Prisoner No. 31200: Polish Army Chaplain Henry Denis.

As usual, the 34-year-old priest turned to a bit of heaven in that hell on earth, mentally praying the Rosary and doing his best to block out the surrounding atrocities.

As he did so, a guard barked out names and prisoner numbers. Deep in prayer, Father Denis heard nothing, failing to step forward when called.

It was a “crime” punishable by death. Yet, for the moment, it went unnoticed.

Father Denis joined a work detail outside the camp, where other priests told him of his mistake. Throughout the day he feared that when the numbers and names did not match the Nazis’ precise count upon return to camp that evening, he would be found out and exterminated.

The time of reckoning came and went, though. A fellow priest had died that day and the numbers matched.

Somehow, Father Denis had been spared.

“It was on that day,” he would write in his memoirs, “that I made a promise, a vow: If I ever leave the camp alive, I would express my gratitude by building for the Blessed Mother a little shrine.”

Fatima Fulfillment

Nearly 61 years later, I pull away from my home in placid Papillion, Neb., and begin a 250-mile drive west to see this “little shrine,” my two daughters in tow. Four hours later, we arrive in Arapahoe, Neb., a town of about 1,000 people near the Kansas border.

At the far end of town we come to 134-year-old St. Germanus Parish and the adjacent Our Lady of Fatima Shrine. Meeting us is lifelong parishioner Mary Graf, who sits on an overcast day to talk about Father Denis and his promise.

It isn't long before she slips into catechetics mode, turning to my girls and asking, “Do you know the story of Fatima?”

They know some of it; a framed picture hangs outside their bedroom depicting the Blessed Virgin's 1917 appearance to three young children in Portugal. There, as World War I raged, Mary urged prayer, penance and sacrifice.

The shrine here does the apparition greater justice than our faded print at home. Perched atop terra cotta bases of concrete are 13 white statues depicting the Fatima scene — Lucia, Francisco and Jacinta kneeling in prayer and facing Our Lady, head bowed and hands folded around a rosary. Four angels stand sentinel.

The shrine also includes nods to Father Denis’ homeland. One stone praises Casimir Pulaski, a Warsaw-born nobleman who fought under George Washington, dying during the siege of Savannah (in his honor Chicago children get off school the first Monday of March).

Another stone dedicated to Polish chaplains recalls Our Lady of Czestochowa.

All of it beckons to motorists zipping through town along U.S. Highway 6/34, bidding them to slow down in more ways than one. “It's a nice surprise,” says Graf. “It's always been a popular attraction.”

But how was it that this one-time parking lot became a spiritual stopover?

Diminishing Despair

Father Denis got the idea for a Fatima shrine after making his vow and finding himself near physical collapse and despair. Fellow priest and Dachau inmate Father Joseph Kentenich, founder of the Marian Schoenstatt Movement, encouraged the Pole, telling him he would survive as a witness to the world and to spread Fatima's message of peace.

Soon thereafter, on April 29, 1945, Dachau was liberated by the U.S. Army. Father Denis in 1949 immigrated to America and Nebraska's Diocese of Lincoln. He was assigned pastor of St. Germanus and soon began telling parishioners of the Fatima apparitions, recognized by the Church just 19 years prior.

He also spoke of Dachau, where 868 Polish priests died.

“They knew what was going on down at the crematorium,” Graf says. “And he said that when they had special holy days like Easter or something, then they killed more.”

Though built in rural Nebraska, the shrine became something of a worldwide project. Parishioners planted more than 100 cedar trees, bushes, roses and other plants. Their children collected rocks from the fields, bringing them in wagons.

Other rocks came from all but four of the 50 states and from Canada and Europe. The statues came from Italy. Much of the financing — about two-thirds, estimates Graf — also came from elsewhere. Father Denis published a newsletter, cultivating contacts with Poles throughout the country, especially in Chicago.

“He just begged everybody for money and help in this,” Graf says.

The shrine was dedicated in 1956 in honor of Mary's appearance, “with hope and prayer for peace.”

It's something of a lost message says Father Robert Barnhill, pastor of St. Germanus’ 48 families. Visitors too often see the shrine, he says, but don't ponder its meaning.

“My goal,” says the priest, “is to bring it back as a place of peace and prayer through our Lady of Fatima.”

Finding Freedom

Even the shrine itself went a bit wayward. The numerous greenery planted half a century ago became overgrown, obscuring the statues. Many of the original trees were removed and others pruned in 1998, making room for a 4-foot statue of Rachel weeping for her children (see Matthew 2:18) — a powerful pro-life statement in bronze.

Additional improvements came two years ago with nearly 700 plantings of perennials, shrubs, bulbs and ornamental trees. Mulch was laid for a pathway leading to four berms that eventually will mark meditation areas for each of the Rosary's mysteries. Future plans include an outdoor Stations of the Cross.

Special devotions for the shrine's 50th anniversary will take place next year during the 13th day of each month, May through October. Half a century later, Father Denis’ words somehow seem even more pertinent today.

“It is well to keep before us what can happen to people who lose freedom,” said Father Denis, who died in 1984, 23 years after leaving St. Germanus. “I pray every day this will not happen in beloved America.”

Anthony Flott writes from Papillion, Nebraska.

Planning Your Visit

The Fatima Shrine of Arapahoe, Neb., is open year-round. For more information (308) 697-3722. Masses are held at adjacent St. Germanus Church Thursdays, 8 a.m; second Sunday of the month, 11 a.m; all other Sundays, 9 a.m.

Getting There

The shrine is about a four-hour drive west from Eppley Airport in Omaha, Neb. It is on U.S. Highway 6 and 34. Take US-75 South toward Interstate 480. Merge onto Interstate 80 West; drive 196 miles. Take US-183 South for 17 miles, then turn right onto US-34/US-6 West; drive 32 miles. Fatima Shrine is four blocks west of US-283.