Some months ago my friend Jan visited the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, and came back with this command: “You absolutely must visit it, Lori. You will love it.” Of course, I didn’t need much persuading, given my fondness for holy sites, particularly those dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
Last week I finally got the chance to make a pilgrimage to the shrine, and it more than lived up to my high expectations. Forgive me if I enthuse at length about this place, as I found it exceptionally beautiful.
Most shrines have a long and storied history that goes back centuries. This shrine, in contrast, is comparatively just a baby. While planning for it began in 1995, the main shrine church wasn’t officially dedicated until 2008. The project was spearheaded by the former Roman Catholic bishop of LaCrosse, Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke. His goal was to create a site for prayer, contemplation and pilgrimage for those unable to make the journey to Mexico City to see the original shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe.
The statue at right, which sits at the entrance to the shrine, illustrates the story of why Our Lady of Guadalupe came to be beloved by Hispanic Catholics. In 1531, a devout, poor Indian man named Juan Diego received a vision of the Virgin Mary on Tepeyac Hill near what is now Mexico City (interestingly, this same hillside had formerly been a worship site for the pre-Christian goddess Tonantzin). Mary told him that she wanted to have a church built in her honor on that spot. Juan reported the vision to his bishop, who asked for a sign of its truth. Juan returned to the spot where he had seen Mary and asked for help in proving his claim to the bishop. Mary filled his cloak with Castilian roses, which were miraculously blooming despite the fact that it was December and that such flowers did not grow in Mexico during that period. “Show them only to the bishop,” she said. When Juan did so, another miracle occurred: the image of Mary was imprinted upon Juan’s cloak. This is the image you have likely seen many times (the original cloak is kept at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City). The story of Juan Diego became a powerful sign of God’s grace being given to the native peoples of the New World. Not only did Mary appear to a humble Indian, but the image of her on his cloak has dark skin and native features.
The new shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe is exquisitely designed and beautifully landscaped. It’s situated on a peaceful, 100-acre site overlooking rolling, wooded countryside just a few miles from the Mississippi River. Visitors enter through a pilgrim center and then take a winding path up the shaded hillside, first passing a lovely little brick chapel and several devotional areas, and then proceeding to the main church, which is designed in a seventeenth-century Italianate Renaissance style. Nearby blooms a garden watched over by a bronze statue of Mary, and farther up the hill is an outdoor Stations of the Cross and a Rosary Walk with images for meditation.
I was entranced by this place. I loved the beauty of its architecture, the peacefulness of its setting, the birdsong that serenaded us as we climbed the hill, the various statues of Mary, the sound of the bells in the church’s campanile, and the way the church’s dome flooded the altar area with luminous light (the stars depicted on its dome match the constellations that filled the night sky when Mary appeared to Juan Diego). I know, I know–I’m a enthusiastic fan of both the Virgin Mary and pilgrimage sites, but honestly, this place is something special.
While the shrine is Roman Catholic, it welcomes visitors of all faiths and charges no admission. I was touched to learn that it has quickly become a favored stop for many people traveling back and forth to the famed Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. But ordinary pilgrims come here too, to be refreshed, to find solace, and to pray. I know I will go back–and I hope one day you can visit too.