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.
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 arctic 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.”