Michigan’s National Shrine of the Cross in the Woods

When Bob and I passed a sign saying “The Cross in the Woods” on a trip to Michigan, the car turned of its own accord (its GPS is tuned to the Holy Rover frequency).

And sure enough, we found a cross in the woods. A very big cross in the woods.

The National Shrine of the Cross in the Woods is in Indian River, Michigan. (Bob Sessions photo)

The National Shrine of the Cross in the Woods is a remarkable sanctuary, especially considering its location in a sparsely-populated corner of the country (just a few miles south of the bridge that connects Upper and Lower Michigan). The shrine reinforced my belief that sacred sites can be found virtually anywhere.

The shrine traces its origin to 1946, when Father Charles D. Brophy was named administrator of a new Catholic parish in the area. As Brophy drove north to his new assignment, he noticed the beautiful woods on either side of the road and kept thinking of the life of Kateri Tekakwitha, a Mohawk convert to Christianity in the seventeenth century. She loved to make small wooden crosses and place them in the woods to encourage people to stop and pray. It would be very appropriate, he thought, to have a church named for her in this landscape similar to that of her home in upstate New York. The problem was that she wasn’t yet a saint (though she was on track to become one).

Through the following years, the idea simmered. And in the meantime, other plans flowered. Under Brophy’s leadership, the little parish decided to build both a church and an outdoor gathering area that could accommodate the many visitors who come to the area in the summer. And at the dedication mass for the new church in 1949, Brophy talked about his dream of having a large cross on the property, funded by donations from around the world.

Father Brophy’s vision became a reality in 1954, when a 55-foot wooden cross was erected. Five years later, a bronze image of the crucified Jesus (sculpted by Marshall Fredericks) was lifted into place.

In 1997 a much larger church was constructed, one with large windows so that the cross could be clearly seen.

The church at the National Shrine of the Cross in the Woods holds nearly 1,000 people. (Bob Sessions photo)

And today, in the center of the outdoor worship area is a statue of Kateri Tekakwitha, who was canonized in 2012 as the first Native American woman to become a saint. The statue is dedicated to Father Brophy.

At the Cross in the Woods shrine, a statue of St. Kateri Tekakwitha has turtles on its base because her father was a Mohawk chief who belonged to the Turtle Clan. (Bob Sessions photo)

The grounds of this peaceful shrine include an outdoor Way of the Cross as well as other statues. Saint Francis of Assisi is here, along with Saint Peregrine (the patron of those suffering from cancer). And there’s a beautiful statue of the Holy Family.

This statue of the Holy Family was sculpted by Canadian artist Timothy P. Schmalz. (Bob Sessions photo)

But my favorite statue is Our Lady of the Highway, who’s honored at the shrine as the patroness of all travelers and pilgrims.

Our Lady of the Highway is the patroness of travelers and pilgrims. (Bob Sessions photo)

Here’s the lovely prayer that accompanies this statue:

O Lady of the Highway, be with us on our journey, for all your ways are beautiful and all your paths are peace. O God, who with unspeakable providence does rule and govern the world, grant unto us, your servants, through the intercessions of our watchful mother, to be protected from all danger and brought safely to the end of our journey. Amen.

As someone who’s on the road a lot, I take comfort in knowing that there’s an Our Lady of the Highway looking out for me. How could I have traveled all these years and not known about her?

 The National Shrine of the Cross in the Woods, which is staffed by Franciscan Friars of the Sacred Heart Province, holds masses each day. Each year, about 300,000 people visit the shrine.

Father Brophy was right—if they built it, people would come. Even to this spot in the middle of the Michigan woods.


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