As you know if you’ve read very many pages on this Spiritual Travels website, I have a great fondness for visiting Virgin Mary shrines. I’ve seen a lot of them around the world, from the Black Madonnas of France to the House of the Virgin Mary in Turkey and the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth. But the shrine to Mary in Missouri’s Lake of the Ozarks region is among the most unusual of all the sites I’ve visited.
Located in the small town of Laurie, the shrine’s official name is The National Shrine of Mary, Mother of the Church. The idea for it was launched in the early 1980s, when growing numbers of summer visitors were flocking to the town’s St. Patrick’s Catholic Church to attend mass. The priest, Father Fred Barnett, decided to construct an outdoor amphitheater to accommodate the crowds, with a shrine to Mary at its center.
As you can see from the above photo, this shrine is surrounded by trees and overlooks a small lake. Its most striking feature is a 14-foot stainless steel statue of Mary, who is dressed in a simple flowing gown with her hands outstretched. Viewing it, I was struck once again by the endless creativity and variety of the religious imagination. Every artist imagines Mary in a different way: in some incarnations she is sorrowful, in others regal or motherly. Here in Missouri, she is a vibrant young woman (I think she has a bit of a Laura Ingalls Wilder vibe about her, which I guess is appropriate because the beloved author wrote her books not far from here).
There’s another unusual thing about the statue: it moves. When it was being installed, the designers of the shrine couldn’t decide which way she should face. Should she look towards the altar, or should she greet people at the entrance? The problem was solved by having the statue rotate. Ever so slowly she turns, making a complete revolution every four minutes. It’s quite a clever solution, really, though a bit disconcerting until you realize what’s happening.
Between 50,000 and 100,000 people visit the shrine each year, with about 1,000 attending mass on summer weekends. While people come to honor Mary and attend services, they also flock to this place to pay homage to mothers in a more general sense. That’s because from its very beginning, the shrine has been dedicated to all mothers (which is a brilliant move, because even if you don’t love Mary you’re almost certain to be a big fan of your own mom).
The base of the statue is made of polished black granite on which the names of more than 4,000 women are inscribed. For a donation, anyone can have a name added (new ones are inscribed every six weeks). “Many people choose to add their mother’s name, but we also have folks who want to honor teachers or aunts or anyone who has filled a motherly role in their life,” says Rose Vanderbeck, marketing director for the shrine. “They don’t have to be Catholic, either, or from the U.S. We have people from all around the world who find us on the Internet and want to honor someone on the wall.”
I must admit that the shrine’s statue doesn’t fit my own image of Mary. But that’s part of the beauty of religious shrines, isn’t it? There are so many different kinds and types that somewhere, some place, there’s likely to be one that speaks to you.
And at the National Shrine of Mary in Missouri, that may be literally true, according to a story told by Rose Vanderbeck. She heard the tale from a visitor to the shrine, a man whom she happened to strike up a conversation with one day.
“This place saved my life,” he told her, and then proceeded to tell the story of how he had come to the shrine years before in great distress after his wife had left him. He had decided to commit suicide, but before ending his life he wanted to say a final prayer. For one reason or another, none of the churches he drove by felt right to him, so he finally ended up at the shrine. No one else was there that day, and he found a spot in the very back corner of the amphitheater. He tried to say a prayer, but he kept getting distracted by the turning statue. Every time Mary faced his direction it felt like she was saying to him, “My son wouldn’t want you to do this.”
“I told her, ‘I’m not talking to you, I’m talking to God,” the man recounted to Rose. “But she kept turning around with that same message each time.”
He decided to delay taking his life at least one more day, and the next morning came back to the shrine again to pray. This time he already knew what the statue was going to say to him. “I know, I know,” he told her. “You don’t have to keep saying it.”
The man’s experiences at the shrine made him change his mind about committing suicide. He moved to another state and rebuilt his life. And years later, he came back at the Mother Shrine to give his thanks.
So even though this shrine doesn’t fit my personal image of Mary, I love that story. Isn’t it just like a mother to say the same thing over and over again, giving a message that’s for our own good even though we don’t want to hear it?
If you’re interested in honoring your mother, or someone who has served as a mother in your life, you might consider having her name inscribed in black granite beneath the rotating statue of Mary that looks a little bit like Laura Ingalls Wilder (and the more I think about this, that’s a perfectly fine image of Mary, for Laura was also brave and kind and loving).
I also like the idea of mothers having their own monument, don’t you? We’re used to seeing the names of soldiers honored in this way, but I know of many mothers who have also fought battles—ones often not very visible to the larger world, but struggles that have required great fortitude, bravery and sacrifice. I’m happy that they’re honored here, in this quiet corner of rural Missouri, beneath this strong and confident image of Mary.
Outdoor masses at the National Shrine to Mary, Mother of the Church are celebrated from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend, on Saturday evening and Sunday morning. The grounds and shrine are open all the time, and visitors of all faiths are welcomed.