Strange and holy in middle America: Our Lady of the Snows

This is holy ground and a funky place. The National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows in Belleville IL is rooted in a miracle that happened in Rome 1,700 years ago. The shrine was founded by a heroic missionary priest/pilot who served native peoples [Eskimos] in the Arctic.

[this article is part of the summer “Shrines Across America Blog Tour.” more info here: https://www.avemariapress.com/shrine-blog-tour/]

🎵 “Meet George Jeston! And his parish!” 🎵 The high altar at the outdoor amphitheater

🎵 “Meet George Jeston! And his parish!” 🎵 The high altar at the outdoor amphitheater

It is also marked by mid-century modern architecture—a style popular in the 1950s and ‘60s. If George Jetson went to church, this would be his parish. Just glance at a few photos of this shrine—with the giant steel arches, the soaring silver spire, the life-size Lego Nativity scene, and the German biergarten next door—and you’ll wonder, “What is this place?” But look a bit closer. Sit in the lush and fragrant Lourdes Grotto. Sing along at a rockin’ outdoor youth Mass on a warm summer evening. Watch a solemn procession honoring Our Lady of Guadalupe with flowers and Spanish guitar songs. France, Germany, and Mexico; nature and art; the history of the ancient world, the renaissance, and booming post-war America— it’s all blended together in an eclectic swirl here. This is our nation. This is our Church. This is the grand Catholic shrine to Mary in the heart of the United States of America.

The shrine sits high on the green bluffs overlooking the rolling Mississippi River valley. It is a beautiful and unusual site. The large outdoor amphitheater looks like something from The Jetsons TV show, or a 1950s sci-fi movie. It seats thousands for big Masses and special events. The towering arches over the altar remind you of another local landmark— the Gateway Arch in St Louis, another leaping modern monument. The Arch was begun in 1961, three years after the shrine broke ground. The 100-acre shrine campus feels like a fusion of Disney World and a retro-futuristic suburb. Wide walkways, fountains, statues, flowers, shops, and gazebos mark the wandering landscape as a place of openness and peace. Strolling around the shrine on a sunny day, you’ll find beautiful nooks and quiet corners for prayer and reflection. In hidden gardens and sweeping grandeur, Mother Mary meets us and greets us at every turn.

Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes

Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes

This midwestern complex honors an apparition of Mary that occurred in Rome in the year 352. A wealthy Catholic couple wanted to build a church in Mary’s honor. She appeared to them in prayer and then marked the spot with nighttime snowfall in August. Snow is uncommon in southern Italy, and unheard of in the summer. Today, the massive Church of St. Mary Major stands on that hill, one of four “major basilicas” in Rome. Pope Francis frequently prays there before departing for international trips. August 5 marks the annual feast day, recalling the Marian miracle and honoring the ancient basilica.

This Italian church is a special place of devotion for Jesuits. St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, celebrated his first Mass there in the 1500s. The saint waited a year after his ordination, taking time for careful prayer and contemplation, before consecrating the Eucharist. His hope was to do so in Bethlehem, where Jesus was born, but wars and civil disturbance made this impossible. Instead, Ignatius celebrated that first Mass at St Mary Major—the original shrine of Our Lady of the Snows. Why? Because this church holds a relic of the manger, the makeshift crib where Mary placed her newborn son. I had the honor of celebrating Mass at that same Roman altar on a pilgrimage in 2014. I will never forget uniting my prayer with that of St. Ignatius and Mother Mary and receiving Christ, the Incarnate Word, present in the Eucharist.

Belleville’s Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows is rooted in American history. Its website notes: “The devotion to Our Lady of the Snows was first introduced to the midwest in 1941 by the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. Fr. Paul Schulte, O.M.I., known as ‘the flying priest of the Arctic,’ was a pilot who brought medical aid and supplies to remote Oblate missions, particularly in the Arctic Circle.”

Imagine the cold, ice, darkness, and isolation he faced to reach these isolated villages. He developed a strong personal connection to Our Lady of the Snows while working in the Oblate missions and built a small chapel in her honor. Schulte brought this ancient devotion to the native Inuit peoples. Their world was covered in snow; Mary had brought a miracle to a Roman family through snow. Further, she had given birth to the Christ Child on one of the coldest, darkest night of the year: December 25. He saw Mary as the perfect patron for this wintry people.

Following his artic ministry, Fr. Schulte came to live at St. Henry’s Seminary in Belleville. Schulte and other Oblates spread devotion to Our Lady of the Snows in the area, leading prayers, Masses, and novenas to her. As the devotion grew, the Oblates looked to establish a permanent shrine to Our Lady of the Snows. In 1958, with help from faithful and generous benefactors, they obtained 100 acres of farmland in Belleville and began to break ground on the Shrine.

The 1950s and ‘60s were a time of incredible growth of the Catholic Church in the United States. The Belleville shrine is clearly marked by the style and piety of this era. After World War II, the U.S. economy was booming. Jobs, suburbs, cars, and big families meant an exponential increase in the number of Catholic schools and parishes in the Midwest. Our Lady of the Snows Shrine rode this giant wave of Catholic spirit. After decades toiling quietly on the margins, Catholics now had the numbers, success, and confidence to put their mark on the United States in a big way. We were no longer struggling immigrants set apart by language and custom. After decades of prayer and work, we had arrived.

Fr. Schulte envisioned a big shrine to celebrate and deepen devotion to Mary and it was quickly popular with Catholics. It was a spiritual destination throughout the heartland and a statement to the wider culture: “We’re Catholic, we’re Americans, and we are here to stay.”

Y2K Millennium Spire

Y2K Millennium Spire

This shrine is big, bright, welcoming, and international— just like the Church and just like Catholics in America. The shrine has scenic rolling grounds, multiple grottos and prayer gardens, seating for thousands, and striking modern-American design. It grabs your attention and isn’t going away.

You’ll find a nearly life-size replica of the Lourdes Grotto in France. You’ll also find a Lego exhibit and a seasonal, million-light Christmas display that draws 350,000 visitors annually. It is a familiar winter pilgrimage for St. Louisans. It is joyful, religious, and family friendly—what John Paul II meant when he spoke of “a culture of life.”

The 85-foot-tall silver millennium spire was completed in Y2K—2,000 years after the birth of Jesus. It is a beacon of prayer and petition, visible for miles around. The spire’s mod vibe is in another nod to Jetsons-era architecture.

This shrine has something for everyone. Like the Church, it reaches out to touch many cultures and centuries. Yet the overall feel is not busy, but vibrant. It’s so big that it is often quiet. You can find a hidden place with our sweet Virgin Mother that is just right for you. Our Lady of Guadalupe Hill, another holy place within the shrine, honors Mary’s appearance to an Aztec man in Mexico in 1531.

A prayer walk for mothers is marked with flowers and names etched in brick and stone. A quiet mosaic chapel devoted to the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary stands just behind the amphitheater. In 2015, Pope Francis made the shrine church one of the “holy doors” for the extraordinary Jubilee of the Year of Mercy. Passing through these doors and offering the prescribed prayers, people could receive a plenary indulgence (a special gift of grace, given by Christ through the Church).

I passed through these doors and took time in prayer in December of 2015 while assisting with a retreat for seminarians. When I was in high school, I was paid to juggle during the Christmas light festival. I’d greet families indoors while they warmed up with hot cocoa and gazed at the displays of Christmas trees and Nativity scenes from around the world.

Recently, as I walked through the shrine on a breezy, summer afternoon, I paused to pray at the outdoor amphitheater. I imaged thousands of families gathered for a summer Mass. It would be a scene of beauty and chaos, for sure—children singing, parents praying, babies crying, grandfathers in sunglasses fanning themselves, people taking photos, moms taking kids to the nearby bathrooms. This is the Church. This is our faith. We don’t live in a storybook. We live here in a world that is sweaty, noisy, disorganized, and holy. Our country is big and bold and a mishmash of cultures and traditions. So is the Church. Jesus is here. Mary is with us here. The Eucharist is here. Jesus find a home in any family and culture that welcomes him. And Mary is always beside her Son.

In a sense, Mary is able to pass through time and space, crossing continents and centuries to greet us and meet us. This suburban shrine points to a Roman shrine, which points to a young mother who lived in Israel. She gave birth to a sweet little boy who is the Lord of the universe. Mary is honored in classic forms in marble and mosaic. She is honored here in shining steel spires and lofty modern arches. All of these sculptures lift our minds to the King of Kings and the Queen of Queens. Mary is with her Son and with the Church from the beginning to the end.

We sing her praises with flowers and poems. We honor her with marble, stone, mosaic, and canvas. She is not afraid to enter any home nor any heart that welcomes her: rich or poor, young or old, elegant or wounded. Mary, with the Church—the Body of Christ—is not just part of a culture but also gives birth to a culture. She was born into the Jewish world in ancient Israel. From Nazareth, to Rome, to the arctic circle, to the American heartland, we are her children—there and here, then and now. Faith in Christ and devotion to Mary: they create a way of life. Through her, the Spirit spins us out into festivals, song, art, food, and life. She is our Mother; she gives us a place for play, joy, faith and family.

The next time you are on I-70 heading across central U.S.A. on a business trip or family vacation take an hour to stop at Our Lady of the Snows. Sit in the leafy shade of the grotto and talk with your Mother for a few minutes. Walk through the Doors of Mercy of the church. Gaze upon our Lord in the tabernacle, truly present in the Eucharist; consider how many people he has blessed, forgiven, and renewed in this holy place. And, yes, look at that funky amphitheater and that giant spire. Wonder, “What were they thinking?” and reflect on a few decisions you’ve made that didn’t turn out the way you hoped. Bring your kids to the Lego display. Grab a beer and a brat next door. Thank God for the glory of our Church, the freedom of our nation, and the beautiful young woman from Nazareth who said Yes to the Lord. Yep, your life is strange. With Jesus, your life is holy, too.

official Shrine website here: snows.org

-Fr. Joe Laramie, S.J., is a Jesuit, Catholic priest, college campus minister, and author of the forthcoming Abide in the Heart of Christ: a 10-Day Personal Retreat with St. Ignatius Loyola. (September, Ave Maria Press). For more information, check out  joelaramiesj.com.

statue of St Juan Diego gazing upon Our Lady of Guadalupe

statue of St Juan Diego gazing upon Our Lady of Guadalupe