Our Lady of the Highways: I-95 Shrine Memorializes 1968 Tragedy
‘Stone Lady,’ keeping vigil, is a sign of Mary’s protection of all travelers.
CHILDS, Md. — In the early morning hours of Oct. 2, 1968, three motorists lost their lives in a multicar crash along a notoriously foggy stretch of highway midway between New York City and Washington, D.C.
Two men and a woman riding in a car were killed when their car was crushed between two tractor-trailers.
There were 14 tractor-trailers and six cars total involved in the crash.
The loud bang of metal striking metal and the sound of smashing glass roused the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales, whose novitiate house was up the hill from the accident site, causing the novices and priests to rush through the mist, climbing over the highway fence to assist the injured and first responders.
The Oblates’ community journal documents the horrific scene in an entry, archived in the Novice Annals, by an 18-year-old novice that same day:
“Today is one that will go down in the history of our novitiate class for a long time. After rising at 5:50 a.m. and on the way down to morning prayer, some people heard a faint crash. During morning prayer everyone heard a scream and another crash. During meditation time everyone went down to the road because we heard voices and ambulances. The fog was so thick you could barely see your hand in front of you. Afterward, 17 or 18 of us assembled in the chapel for Mass; we waited and waited, only to see one of the priests and approximately eight others come into the sacristy by the back door. It was then that we all knew there was an accident involving numerous trucks and cars. No one had much breakfast, including the dish crew who had been at the fence by the road.”
The tragedy left such an impression on the Oblates that they erected a permanent shrine dedicated to “Our Lady of the Highways” on their property alongside Interstate I-95, as both a memorial and as a reminder to others to drive safely.
The original 5-foot-tall statue of Our Lady placed at the shrine was dedicated in 1971 and was made of cement. The late Oblate Father John Faqua, director of the Oblate Guild, facilitated the creation of the shrine. Until his death in 1979, he vigorously promoted highway safety and devotion to Our Lady of the Highways. He also created Mary’s Travelers, a prayer apostolate of people who pledge to drive responsibly and pray for the safety of all travelers.
The original statue was replaced in 1986, when the shrine was refurbished, and the 12-foot-tall marble statue that took its place remains to this day. This sacred statue, known by many travelers as the “Stone Lady,” symbolizes Mary as the patron of spiritual travelers, watching over all of the faithful’s journeys.
Oblate Father Michael Connelly was present at the dedication in 1986 and recalls that the marble statue was a generous gift from longtime Oblate benefactor Stephen Markert and his wife, in memory of Oblate Father John Kelly, who taught Markert in high school.
“The statue has been a trademark of our community,” Father Connelly said. “Mary remains a constant presence. She had her challenges with travel in her own life — the trip to Bethlehem and the flight to Egypt — so she knew what it was to be a traveler and all the challenges that go along with that.”
He shares that as technology has become a part of our everyday lives, the Oblates have used their website to create awareness of the shrine, to offer prayers for travelers and an opportunity for people to become part of the Mary’s Travelers apostolate.
“I think it’s a nice devotion that Catholics and even non-Catholics can relate to. Everyone travels and recognizes the challenges and dangers associated with high-speed travel. Any effort to make people aware of responsible driving and a prayer life is a good thing. It’s a devotion that crosses over denominations; it’s not something that separates, but brings people together,” Father Connelly said.
Helping Our Lady Shine
Over the decades, the elements took a toll on the “Stone Lady” and the shrine, and it was in desperate need of refurbishment. In spring 2022, donations were used to spruce up the area and clean the statue.
The $36,000 project took four months and included new plantings, enhanced lighting, restored signage and better irrigation that bring beauty and prominence to the original shrine.
Bishop William Koenig of Wilmington, Delaware, presided over the rededication and blessing of the shrine on the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, July 16, in a simple ceremony, held indoors in Annecy Hall Chapel due to inclement weather.
Oblate Father Jack Kolodziej, provincial superior of the Wilmington-Philadelphia Province, who led the effort to restore the shrine, said, “As Oblates, we have a very Marian core. The image of Mary reaching out and helping others is important to us.”
He noted that the retired priests who now live near the shrine pray daily for travelers as a vital part of their continued ministry to all those who journey through life.
Father Kolodziej recalled that last year a professor from the University of Delaware who had been commuting past the shrine for more than 30 years stopped by to thank the Oblates for their prayers and for the presence of Our Lady of the Highways, whom he passed by three days a week.
“He said not only was the statue a sign of how close he was to work, but that it was a sign that Mary was protecting him along the way. He left a donation in thanksgiving. We are grateful for those kinds of things, when people reach out to us to tell us how much the shrine means to them,” Father Kolodziej said.
Father Mike Vogt, director of the shrine, who assisted Father Faqua in his later years, was in the novitiate in 1978.
He always got a kick out of the times when he or the other Oblates would go down to the shrine to pray the Rosary and truckers would express their appreciation. “That was when we were in full cassocks, and the truckers would blow their horns when they’d drive by us,” he said. “It still happens sometimes even today.”
He marvels at how this busy stretch of I-95 alongside the Oblates property sees traffic from tens of millions of cars and trucks each year. “There are something like 60,000 to 100,000 cars a day going by now,” he said.
As social media has become an essential tool of evangelization, the Oblates now have a “Mary’s Travelers” page on Facebook and send out regular newsletters.
“We ask for prayers for all those who travel and encourage others to pray for all travelers under the protection of Mary. In October and May, we pray the Rosary every day for the safety of all travelers, in addition to our daily prayers every evening for this intention. It reminds us there is a Church out there that is growing and is on the move, so the prayers are more important now than ever,” Father Vogt said.
The Oblates also get the word out on special Masses they celebrate for Mary’s Travelers on busy travel holidays such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter and Labor Day.
“Since we’re all on a journey, we’re happy to pray for those who are journeying in many ways throughout this life,” said Father Vogt.
“Father Faqua would be smiling every day that anyone thinks to pray for the safety of all travelers. It was a vision of his, and was a consolation in his own life, to have that statue there and to hear people respond to that. I get a giddy feeling when I think of the number of people who see that statue and even think to pray and pause — it was something that he envisioned would happen.”
LEARN MORE Oblates.org/our-lady-of-the-highways
Traveler’s Prayer to Our Lady of the Highways
Our Lady of the Highways, may my traveling be to the honor and glory of your Divine Son.
Enlighten my way and protect me on this journey.
Bring me back home safe in mind, body, and soul.
Through Christ, your Son.
Source: Oblates of St. Francis de Sales