ST. LOUIS — If you think about it, we’ve all trudged through the past year as modern-day pilgrims, seeking solace as well as meaning and knowledge during a rough journey.
Some of us simply want to get out of the house, and see something inspiring and new.
Catholic shrines fit that bill for the religious and nonreligious alike.
Shrines are shrines for many reasons. The Rev. Aaron Nord, adjutant judicial vicar of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, writes: “Shrines are special places where people come on pilgrimage to pray. The pilgrimage could be long or short, maybe just a day trip. The point is that they are coming to this special place especially to seek God and pray, and it’s not a place to which they would normally be going to pray,” such as their parish church.
They might be designated as national shrines or archdiocesan shrines, depending on an approval or designation process, but that shouldn’t matter for visitors.
Nearly a dozen shrines dot the St. Louis area. We’ve focused on three unique ones with fascinating histories.
Old St. Ferdinand Shrine
At the Old St. Ferdinand Shrine in Florissant, visitors can walk where a saint walked, kneel where a saint prayed, stand where a saint taught.
“You know, I’d like to think here that we’re all saints,” said director Carol Campbell, chuckling. “But, we’ve got a bona fide one here.”
St. Rose Philippine Duchesne, the region’s only canonized saint, was a French sister of the Society of the Sacred Heart who first came to live in the convent in 1819. She and the sisters opened the first Catholic school for Native Americans and the first free school for girls.
The shrine has spent the past couple of years celebrating its 200th anniversary. Mass was celebrated in the convent chapel for the first time on Christmas Eve of 1819. A log church had been built on the property, and a cornerstone for the brick church was laid in February 1821.
The church is no longer a functioning parish and has been run by the Friends of Old St. Ferdinand since the late 1950s. It relies on donations and volunteers and has battled floods, fires and, most recently, leaking boiler pipes. They’re raising money for a new heating and cooling system, but meanwhile, plaster peels from the walls in the church and priceless paintings and relics of saints endure extreme temperatures.
“Once you walk over there, you’re walking over into the tundra,” cautions Campbell, pulling back a curtain that divides the rectory from the church.
A wax effigy of St. Valentine lies in front of the high altar, its chest cavity containing his bones. A bishop in Europe gave the saint’s relics to the Rev. Peter DeSmet, who was ordained here, and other relics sit within the wooden altar that once stood in the original log cabin church. And yes, it’s amazing everything has lasted this long, Campbell agrees.
“And thanks be to God, let’s keep it that way,” she said.
A tour through the shrine is an education in pioneer history, and visitors can see where the sisters lived and taught, and the large upper room where students rolled up the mats they slept on to socialize and play games. They can see the wooden shoes and straw hats like the ones the sisters wore to garden, and look through the same wavy glass window panes toward the road that crossed Fountain Creek and into the oldest streets of Florissant and St. Louis County.
The second floor of the convent/orphanage at the Old St. Ferdinand Shrine in Florissant, was used as the bedroom for orphan girls there. Saint Rose Philippine Duchesne, who was later canonized, was a nun who served there.
Mother Duchesne slept in a small closet under the stairs. As a former high school teacher herself, Campbell suspects it’s so she could hear when the students were coming and going. Visitors write prayers or intentions on small pieces of paper, and slip them inside cracks in the boards of the closet. Twice a year or so, Campbell takes the pieces with her on retreat, offers up the prayers and burns them.
“I believe I’m standing here on holy ground, of men and women who went before us,” said Campbell. “I believe the story of the shrine, and what in particular we’re entrusted to today, is a story that is much bigger than all of us. It’s that fortitude that kept people going.”
Black Madonna Shrine and Grottos
For 23 years, Brother Bronislaus Luszcz worked on his days off in the hills outside Pacific, piecing tons of stone and rock, building pathways and grottos for his fellow brothers and visitors. The quiet monk from Poland did not speak much English and was particular about his work.
When a resident from the brother’s nearby infirmary came along to help, Brother Bronislaus was too polite to tell him to stop building. He’d just watch, and send the visitor along when it was time for lunch or dinner.
“Once they were out of sight, he would take everything apart,” said Mike Scully, director of the Black Madonna. “So he was very much sure that he wanted to do things his way.”
The shrine is a testament to Brother Bronislaus’ work, but he built it to honor the Virgin Mary, in particular the Black Madonna, especially beloved in Poland.
Brother Bronislaus was part of a group of Franciscan brothers invited by the archbishop to immigrate here to establish a nursing home for men. He arrived in 1927, but did not begin working on the project he would become known for until about 10 years later. Brother Bronislaus had a special devotion for Our Lady of Czestochowa, the town in Poland where her most famous shrine is located. She is also known as the Black Madonna because of her skin tone in the famous painting, said to be painted by St. Luke. The shrine in Pacific displays several copies of the painting in its open-air chapel, including one touched to the original painting, blessed by the Polish cardinal and arriving here just weeks before Bronislaus’ death.
Brother Bronislaus was a resourceful, creative person; he used the stone from the grounds to make his first grotto in the recesses of the sandstone hill, then trucked in porous, often sparkly tiff rock from Old Mines, Missouri, to construct the rest. He used large coffee and vegetable cans as concrete molds to make columns, Jell-O pans and cupcake molds to make flower pots and flowers, and sheep and rabbit cake molds to make animal companions for the statues of the saints and the Holy Family.
He pressed costume jewelry, coral and shells gifted from around the world into the concrete, and embedded colored jars and glass plates. He cleared the brush from behind the structures so the sunlight would light up the glass.
In the winter, he’d work on kneelers and animals inside his workshop. He did all his work without plans or large tools. “Everything he did by hand,” said Scully. “It’s been called a labor of love.”
One summer day in August 1960, Brother Bronislaus suffered from heatstroke while working on the shrine, and managed to make it up the hill, leaving a trail of tools. He collapsed at the Our Lady of Perpetual Help grotto and died.
Scully, 59, grew up in south St. Louis, and first visited the shrine as a boy to visit his uncle, Brother Paschal Scully. Mike Scully and his sisters called the other brothers “uncle,” and Scully mowed the grass on the grounds as a teen. He’s worked here pretty much since. He loves the grotto’s history, and he loves sharing it with visitors.
“I just really like the place because it makes me happy,” Scully said. “I work in a beautiful environment. For the most part, everyone I meet is interested in what this place is and what I can tell them about it.”
They focus on maintaining the property, where the biggest issue is erosion, and host regular prayer services. They can also host Mass. This summer, Scully hopes to open a small museum in a corner of the open-air chapel. During the pandemic, the shrine has drawn more local visitors who simply want to see something different. Many visitors aren’t necessarily religious but see the grottos as a curiosity or folk art. The infirmary the brothers established here has closed, and the shrine relies solely on donations.
“People find peace here. Peace and solitude. It’s usually fairly quiet here, even when we have a crowd,” Scully said.
National Shrine of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal
The National Shrine of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal in Perryville, Mo., got its start in 1818 after Catholic families offered land to a group of French Vincentian priests to live here. The grounds include a historic church, rosary walk, grotto, gift shop and opportunities to learn the story of the Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal. The grotto on the grounds was originally constructed by Vincentian priests, brothers and seminarians in 1918.
Some visitors had no idea what else was on the grounds of the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal. They had no idea about the historic St. Mary’s of the Barrens Church, the historic log cabin sacristy, or the story of the Virgin Mary’s apparition to St. Catherine Laboure nearly 200 years ago.
They also had no idea the zinnia field was a fluke, grown in a former gravel construction lot site and where wildflowers refused to grow the season before.
“We joke that we spend a lot of money on marketing,” said the shrine’s president and CEO, Don Fulford. “And a $200 patch of zinnias brought in more people than all our marketing.”
The story of this shrine begins in 1818, after a group of Catholic families offered 640 acres of land to a group of French Vincentian priests to settle there. They built a log church, laid the cornerstone for the present-day church in 1827 and established a seminary.
Meanwhile, back in France in the year 1830, Mary appeared to Sister Catherine Laboure on three occasions. One of those times, Mary appeared while standing on a globe with rays of light streaming from her outstretched hands. Mary told Catherine to have a medal made of the image. “Those who wear it will receive great graces; abundant graces will be given to those who have confidence,” Mary is said to have told her.
It’s estimated 1 billion medals have been distributed around the world since that time. In 1918, the seminary established the association to spread the word about the medal.
The Perryville shrine distributed 3 million medals in the last year alone. People request them by phone or by mail, or they visit and receive one free or buy more here or online.
A staff of 63 people received 80,000 phone calls in the past year and 800,000 pieces of mail. People come to them with prayer requests, questions about their faith or a desire to simply talk.
“It’s the whole gamut,” said Fulford. “Hey, can you teach me how to say the rosary? We have a homeless guy who calls every day just to talk to someone. Or, it’s hey, I’m getting ready to go into surgery next week. Can somebody say a prayer for me? What’s great about that is about three weeks after their surgery we call back to see how they’re doing.”
During the pandemic, the shrine distributed thousands of medals to hospital chaplains who wanted them for patients who couldn’t otherwise receive visitors. The pandemic also brought a different type of visitor to the shrine grounds: people who simply wanted to do something outdoors.
Besides the historic church, the sacristy of the log cabin church, the Vincentian cemetery, the gift shop and offices, the campus’s 50 or so acres include an impressive rosary walk, with a half-mile path that winds past statues and gardens, with stones that depict beads of the rosary.
Some statues depict the three apparitions of Mary to St. Catherine Laboure. Others depict 12 apparitions of Mary that took place around the world, with plaques with information about each one. It’s as educational as it is inspirational, said Fulford.
The church itself is a photo album of sorts of the Vincentian brothers and priests and the Daughters of Charity, with paintings of various saints with ties to the orders. The church is adjacent to a breathtaking votive candle room where people can donate to have one of 30,000 electronic candles switched on on their behalf.
Frank Ryan, the volunteer coordinator for the shrine, said he’s watched visitors’ jaws drop as they enter the church.
“It’s amazing to them that a church like this can be found in a place like Perryville,” he said. “They think something like this can only be found in St. Louis” or a bigger city.
The outdoor path leads to a grotto that was built in 1918, and the recessed grotto grounds served as the quarry where builders got stone to construct the church.
This spring, they’ll plant the zinnia patch down by the grotto, hoping visitors will enjoy the historic and spiritual paths along the way.