Shrine of Christ’s Passion is monumental

The town of St. John in northwest Indiana isn’t so far off the beaten path. Less than an hour from downtown Chicago, not far from Interstate Highway 90 that crosses the United States from east to west, it is located in the heartland of America.

But one part of it — the Shrine of Christ’s Passion, along Route 41 — feels very far away.

There, pilgrims can encounter Jesus Christ as he walked through his last days on earth, from his Last Supper to his ascension into heaven, traveling on a winding path lined with stones, grass and trees meant to evoke the Holy Land.

“It’s very peaceful,” said Rick Bishop of South Bend, Ind., who visits each year with his wife, Nancy, during Lent.

“It’s just a way to spend some time with the Lord before Easter,” he said.

For many who will not have the opportunity to walk the actual hills around Jerusalem, the path and its life-size bronze figures provide a way to enter into Christ’s journey, said Paul Anderson, the shrine’s general manager.

Last year, between 150,000 and 200,000 people visited the shrine, which charges no admission. About 8,000 visited on Good Friday alone, Anderson said. Father Francis Hoffman of Relevant Radio, perhaps better known as “Father Rocky,” leads the Way of the Cross along the shrine’s path at 3 p.m. on Good Friday.

The shrine itself includes the Way of the Cross, winding its way up to Christ being crucified on Calvary Hill, just in front of St. John the Evangelist Church, and then back down to the empty tomb and a scene of the Ascension in a grotto, two Marian shrines, a shrine to the sanctity of human life and a large and well-appointed gift shop whose proceeds help fund the operation of the shrine as a whole.

Finding a site

Jesus is placed in the sepulcher at the 14th station. Artist Mickey Wells made the statues for the shrine. Photo by Karen Calloway

While the shrine is independently operated by a nonprofit foundation, its genesis is intertwined with the story of St. John the Evangelist Church, which stands proudly on the hill above the shrine. The parish had outgrown its previous church by the late 1990s, and the pastor, Father Sammie Maletta, went looking for a site for a new church with parishioner and local developer Frank Schilling.

He hadn’t found anything he liked until the two men drove up along a roadside shrine to Mary on Route 41 featuring a white Italian marble statue of the Blessed Virgin. That shrine had been erected in 1956 by Schilling’s maternal grandfather, Frank Wachter.

Father Maletta looked up from the small shrine and saw a white farmhouse with a silo on the hill that rose up from the road, and he knew that was where the new church should be.

“That’s the site,” Father Maletta said that day. “That’s where we’re supposed to build the church.”

Schilling didn’t think it would work; the farmland had long since passed out of his family’s hands and belonged to a rival developer.

“There’s no way he would sell it to me,” Schilling said.

Maybe it was divine providence, but two weeks later the developer who owned the property retired to Florida, and Schilling bought it and donated the land at the top of the hill for the new church. Father Maletta then suggested that maybe there should be a path from the roadside shrine to the church.

Idea takes shape

Schilling took the project way beyond that. He wanted to make the path a Way of the Cross, and he wanted the figures to be done in bronze — strong and durable and dignified. But he wasn’t able to find a local artist for the project.

Schilling didn’t find the artist until he and his wife, Shirley, took a road trip from Indiana to Santa Fe, N.M., and stopped off to visit a 200-foot cross they saw from the interstate. At the foot of the cross were bronze figures, just the kind Schilling envisioned for his Way of the Cross.

It took some asking, but after a day he learned the artist’s name: Mickey Wells, from Amarillo, Texas. He has now spent years casting the 40 bronze figures that depict the last days of Jesus’ earthly life, from the Last Supper to the Ascension.

As plans for statues came along, the Schillings decided they needed to rethink their idea of a flat, straight pathway. Instead, the Way of the Cross they designed winds around curves, so each scene stands on its own, with berms and grading to make the land hillier, like the area around Jerusalem.

“Even if you know the story, you really don’t know what is coming next,” Shirley Schilling said.

Building the shrine

Construction wasn’t easy. The project took more than 80 truckloads of boulders from a quarry in northern Wisconsin that, with their porous texture, resemble the rocks of the Holy Land. The concrete path is wide enough to accommodate golf carts for pilgrims who cannot make the walk on their own and took more than 6,000 square yards of concrete. The landscaping includes more than 5,000 trees and bushes, many selected for their resemblance to the olive trees that are native to Palestine.

But walking the path is not only a physical and visual experience. A speaker at each scene gives a short description of what is happening, often using words from Scripture, followed by a short reflection aimed at helping pilgrims relate the experiences of Jesus to their lives in the 21st century.

Construction went on for seven years, with improvements added as the shrine progressed. The Ascension was added because Frank Schilling did not want to end the journey with an empty tomb.

Continued growth

“When I started, I had no idea that it was going to be of this magnitude,” Frank Schilling said. “There were moments when I said to myself, ‘I can’t get this done. It’s impossible.’ ... I remember sitting at the Last Supper saying, ‘Is this project ever going to get done? Lord, I don’t know if I can do this.’”

Six years into the project, the last cross was hoisted on Calvary Hill. The gift shop, less than half its current size, opened in late 2007, and the first pilgrims walked the path in spring 2008.

“People just started showing up,” Anderson said.

The most recent addition to the shrine is Our Lady of the New Millennium, the 33-foot stainless steel statue of Mary that was commissioned as a travelling statue for the jubilee year of 2000 by the late Carl Demma. The statue traveled to hundreds of parishes, religious communities and other sites, mostly in the Archdiocese of Chicago, for a decade. Francine Demma, Carl’s widow, was looking for a permanent home for the statue, and after visiting the shrine a few times, she decided it would be the perfect home. Now, Our Lady of the New Millennium stands next to the gift shop, facing Route 41, on the site of the original marble statue. That statue now stands at the top of the hill, facing the church.

Also on the site is a Shrine to the Sanctity of Life, which features an anguished Jesus on his knees, holding an unborn baby, in front of a gravestone bearing the words from Jeremiah 1:15: “Before I knew you in the womb I formed you.”

There is more to come: Mickey Wells is casting a statue of Moses with the Ten Commandments that will be installed on a replica Mount Sinai near the gift shop.

Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.