The Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in the USA: Tour de Force of New Art and Beauty

Photos by OC-Travel
I cannot say enough good things about the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Crosse, Wisconsin.  In short, it is one of the most impressive, interesting and stunning sanctuaries I have seen on the North American continent.  And to think it is relatively new construction, recently opened in 2008.  I really wish more Catholics would visit here to marvel at this mighty place of elegant beauty and prayer.  The shrine is family-friendly and easily accessible and its beautiful liturgies match its noble vocation as a place of pilgrimage.  I left feeling immensely satisfied, with an even deeper admiration for its creator, the great Cardinal Burke (whom I affectionately call the "new" Cardinal Ratzinger, helping to lead the vanguard of the counter-revolution for Christ). 

The shrine is unlike any other shrine you will see in North America.  The church is in the style of Roman Baroque, set amid the rolling hills of the Coulee Region of La Crosse.  The land - seventy acres which was donated and thirty acres that was later purchased - is said to be arguably the most beautiful pocket of wooded countryside in the region.  The shrine is a busy place, hosting a full calendar of events each year for pilgrims and visitors including conferences, exhibits, days of reflection, retreats, lectures and even an indoor Christmas market in December.  Lots of exciting activity to gather Catholics from near and far.  It is enough to make one want to retire here in the shadow of the shrine to participate daily in the very active life of the shrine community, as in the Middle Ages when villages arose around abbey churches.   

The shrine church is a stunning marvel of architecture, a masterpiece of both style and serenity.  This is thanks to the genius of the very competent architect, Mr. Duncan Stroik (a.k.a. the "rex" of Catholic architects who today so eloquently expresses the best building techniques and styles the Church has to offer).  The main church is obviously the spiritual center of the shrine and it stands out as such thanks to its careful design and layout.  The traditional cruciform shape has been retained, with resplendent stained glass windows.  The church can be seen from a distance while approaching from the road, sitting majestically against a natural woodland backdrop on the side of a bluff.  It rises as a baroque temple topped with a glorious dome, fashioned after intricate Tridentine patterns of the Counter-Reformation.  Added to the structure are beautiful interior appointments that include polished marbles in countless shapes and colors and beautiful woodwork.  Here the sacraments (called the "mysteries" in the Eastern Churches) are offered daily.  By God's grace, the design and decor of the church lend themselves to the mystery of the sacred rites surrounding the altars.  Holy Mass is offered in Latin for pilgrims and locals.  Every detail of the interior and exterior finishing has been taken into careful account.  For example, inside the dome majestic constellations match the skies that illumined the night sky on the evening of December 12, 1531 when Our Lady last appeared to St. Juan Diego.  Around the perimeter of the interior are listed titles given to Our Lady, carved fittingly in Latin, the universal tongue of the Church.  The side altars include original baroque paintings and first-class relics of saints and blesseds.  A magnificent altar rail in an exquisite traditional footprint is where the faithful kneel devoutly to receive Our Blessed Lord in the Holy Eucharist.  In many ways the paintings stand out as outstanding original works of art, hand-painted original compositions that will especially be remembered far into the future.

This winter I finally had the privilege to visit the shrine for the first time.  Visiting the sanctuary had been on my bucket list since the unveiling of plans in 2001.  My wife and I visited and were warmly received.  We enjoyed a personal tour through the good graces of our gracious host, Mr. Steven Doll, pilgrimage outreach coordinator.  Steven is a wonderful man and a kind and welcoming host who welcomed us with open arms and gave us an unforgettable reception with a delicious lunch in the European refectory as well as a ride on his shuttle and a VIP guided tour of the church and outdoor grounds, gardens and devotional areas.  Thank you, Steve!  The shrine is a 501 (c)(3) charity and is a worthy cause, independent of the Diocese of La Crosse.  I urge all Catholics of good will to support this worthy initiative with their generous stewardship. 

I also encourage parishes and dioceses to be in touch with Steven to plan a group pilgrimage to the shrine.  The shrine welcomes the public.  It is open every day of the week.  There is no charge to visit.  There is ample parking.  Groups of pilgrims are especially welcome.  Group catering packages are available as well as group pilgrimage coupons for the gift shop.  Hotel discounts are also available for groups.  Since the shrine was dedicated in 2008, countless pilgrim groups have arrived for conferences and retreats as well as on bus tours to see and explore all this magnificent shrine has to offer.  The shrine is easily accessible.  It is about a 3 hour drive from Minneapolis and a 5 hour drive from Chicago.  The staff and volunteers are very friendly and the food is excellent.  A plenary indulgence is attached to organized group pilgrimages when the faithful visit the shrine for the purposes of devotion, reform of life, growth in holiness, and greater communion with the pope and members of the Church through the intercession of Our Lady.  A group bus pilgrimage can be a tremendous opportunity for spiritual and doctrinal formation and I highly recommend it.  Such tours are a fast growing niche in the tourist industry. 

La Crosse is a particularly beautiful place, where residents experience the fullness of the four seasons.  While summertime is the natural time to visit, autumn also provides an ideal time to see the fall colors, while winter is a perfect time to see the picturesque snow amid typical winter sunshine.  Groups are encouraged to combine other events, such as a Mississippi River cruise, or a visit to a nearby winery estate, etc.   There are various motor-coach friendly accommodations in the region. The shrine has been featured in Bus Tours Magazine with a cover image and generous publicity.  It has also been suggested a perfect bus tour would include not only the flagship shrine, but also two other approved shrines in the state of Wisconsin: those of the the National Shrine of Holy Hill in Milwaukee and the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help in New Franken, Wisconsin.     

Why visit?  The shrine has a message.  Visitors who travel here for a respite receive a message and return home with the message.  Hearts are transformed.  The mission of the shrine is faithful to the message of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Empress of the Americas, who appeared on a hill on the edge of Mexico City in 1531.  The message is still alive today.  The spiritual needs of the people are met.  The shrine is growing.  Plans are developing for a proper retreat house to be build on the grounds that will include a Marian catechist apostolate.  Such accommodations will be a big bonus for future groups attending events at the shrine.  The shrine is staffed by Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate, friars recognized by their blue habit and silver Miraculous Medal.     

Upon arrival, visitors enter through an elegant gate that leads up to the parking lot.  Here they enter the pilgrim center, a perfectly built facility that has been beautifully planned and decorated.  There is located an information desk and administrative offices, restrooms and an orientation room where visitors can watch a welcome film on the Guadalupe apparitions.   Pilgrims begin and end their visit at this entrance.  Here is also found a truly enjoyable dining room and restaurant known as the Culina Mariana (Mary's Kitchen), well known for its excellent menu with traditional Bavarian cooking and a popular Sunday brunch buffet as well as a gift shop called the Flores Mariae, (Flowers of Mary), which has an excellent display of religious items, art, books, devotionals and souvenirs for purchase - a perfect place to end a visit.

Pilgrims begin their ascent up the bluff to the shrine by walking up a picturesque paved path that leads to the shrine, which is located half-way up the wooded hills. The magnificent view of the landscaping combined with the peaceful vista of the north woods and fresh air is a sight to see amid the sound of wild birds and other visitors walking, praying or singing.  Pilgrims walk up alone or in groups while encountering each other amid some very beautiful statues amid wild flowers, local flora and fauna.  The shrine is located on over one-hundred acres of wooded land.  One of these statues nestled along the walk is dedicated to St. Kateri (the first canonized Native American, designed with the help of Native American Catholics), another honors St. Isidore while another is dedicated to the memory of St. Joseph.  Among others, a statue of St. Juan Diego stands out in memory.  On the way up the hill pilgrims encounter what can best be described as totally unique and truly world-class shrine devotionals that include a fascinating votive candle chapel as well as a memorial to the unborn.  After the shrine church the path continues its winding way to the upper level of the meditation trail to include a Via Crucis (outdoor Stations of the Cross) and rosary walk.   

Pilgrims bring their prayer requests.  The votive candle chapel boasts over five-hundred votive candles.  Here pilgrims enter and inhale the smell of prayer, votive light offerings of burning flame and wax, where many choose to light a candle, symbolic of a prayer intention.  The chapel is named after our Mother of Good Counsel.  From all of my travels I have to say the chapel is totally unique in the Catholic world.  From the outside it appears an enchanted alpine structure made of river stone.  Those who enter are pleasantly surprised by what they see: a glowing, blue pyramid of 576 blue candles fourteen feet high and 12 feet wide, surrounded by stained glass windows.  The pyramid is evocative of the pyramids in Mexico City that were disassembled by Cortez in order to construct the glorious Metropolitan Cathedral in Mexico City, easily the most significant church in the Americas.  The candles are left constantly lit, symbolic of the ceaseless prayer of God's children and of their heavenly mother for the salvation of the world. 

The path continues up to the Memorial to the Unborn, classically-designed in North Italian Renaissance style, a totally unique mausoleum where visitors can spend time walking and reflecting, showcasing the dignity of all human life.  This memorial is a place of spiritual healing for parents and loved ones where deceased babies from miscarriage are entombed.  It is a place of comfort for those who have lost a child before birth.  It is dedicated to babies who were not brought to full term.  There is a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mother of the Unborn cradling three unborn babies, with four bronze instructional plaques with various pro-life and life-affirming quotes that explain the moral teachings of the Church, a testimony to the dignity of all human life.  The memorial contains flower beds that are known as "Mary's Garden," a peaceful scene, complete with fountains and statues.  The memorial to the unborn is dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of the unborn.  It should be said this memorial is one of the best kept secrets of the Catholic world.  Engraved on black granite are the names of unborn babies whose remains are laid there to rest.  Other unborn babies are remembered by name only through inscriptions on the white limestone.  "Unborn" refers to all children who have died before birth, including through accidental miscarriage or abortion.  Due to Wisconsin State Law, babies buried here are below twenty weeks gestation.  In fact, I wish more Catholic couples knew of this place where the earthly remains of their children can be interred in fitting mausoleum walls.  Often in the Catholic world parents are at a loss as to how and where to bury a child lost through miscarriage.  This is a sacred burial place where reverential silence is observed.  The memorial and memory of the trauma of losing a child is a testimony to the truth of the dignity of human life from conception to natural death.

The history of the shrine is linked forever with Leo Raymond Cardinal Burke.  When he was the Ordinary of the Diocese of La Crosse he had a dream for the shrine.  Inspired by the Holy Spirit, he moved forward with this ambition plan.  It was meant to be.  After he was was installed as the bishop of the Diocese of La Crosse in 1995, the then Bishop Raymond Burke first expressed a desire to establish a Marian shrine in his native diocese.  In July 1999 plans were announced for the construction and establishment of the shrine.  The land was bequeathed for the purpose of a shrine -- approximately 70 acres, a donation from the Robert Swing family.  Some members of the family still live on the property.  It was a natural fit - the Cardinal himself grew up on a farm in the nearby vicinity.  The shrine was the dream of not only the Cardinal, but also the desire of the late Mr. and Mrs. Swing who so generously gave, for an eternal testimony, the gift of the tract of land that once was their family farm.  The humble couple could never have imagined the final result and that one day the new shrine would become a place of national and international pilgrimage.  All this to honor Our Lady, with the intent of bringing people closer to God.  On June 17, 2001 ground breaking for the shrine took place, marking effectively the founding of the shrine.  On July 31, 2008 the shrine church and friary were finished and dedicated by the then Archbishop Burke amid great festive celebration that is still fresh in the memory of all who rejoice at the immense benefit the shrine has given to the local church and beyond. 

The Guadalupe Shrine in Mexico City is the most visited shrine on the planet earth.  It is only fitting that a sister shrine be located and easily accessible in the United States.  What better place than the Upper Midwest, amid the farmland of the American heartland.  Shrines are special places of grace and prayer at work, places of ceaseless prayer for the corporal and spiritual welfare of all faithful Christians.  Thanks be to God and to His Eminence the Lord Reverend Cardinal for this holy place of devotion and pilgrimage, a place of miracles where heavenly grace abounds.  Our Lady said to Juan Diego when she appeared to him in Mexico: "I wish that a chapel be built here, so I may give all my love, compassion, help, and protection, because I am your merciful mother."  The tradition continues.

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