One of Father Robert Swing's fondest memories of growing up on his parents' farm on the southern outskirts of La Crosse, Wis., was helping his late father, Robert Swing Sr., plant 3,000 pine seedlings on the property. As part of a forestation initiative by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the pine planting, Father Swing said, took place over the course of 10 days.

Archbishop Raymond Burke, who conceived of a shrine dedicated to Mary when he was the bishop of La Crosse, Wis., presided over the dedication of the Shrine of Our Lady ofGuadalupe on July 31. Photos courtesy of the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe

That was in 1953. A half-century later, on May 13, 2004, Father Swing was on hand to watch the first step in a process that would eventually clear away a large swath of the pine grove he and his father planted. It was on this day that Archbishop Raymond Burke, who was the bishop of La Crosse from 1995 to 2003, broke ground for the new church at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Crosse, Wis.

Today visitors can see the remaining trees -- now towering high in the air -- as part of the landscape design integrated for the newly built church of the shrine, a Romanesque-style stone structure complete with bell tower and dome that was dedicated July 31 -- the sixth anniversary of St. Juan Diego's canonization.

Nestled in the hills overlooking the Mississippi River, the 118-foot-tall shrine church is visible from the main roads into southern La Crosse. Traveling these roads -- busy transportation arteries of the upper Mississippi Valley -- pilgrims and passersby can easily view the majestic fruits of Archbishop Burke's vision.

That same vision was displayed to a worldwide audience July 31, thanks to live television coverage by EWTN. Those attending the special event included Cardinals Justin Rigali of Philadelphia and Francis George of Chicago, more than 20 archbishops and bishops, more than 100 priests and scores of visitors processing up the hill to Father Swing's old pine grove.

According to Jack Socha, the shrine's communication manager, the shrine has seen a "dramatic upturn" in pilgrims since the dedication.

"I'm basing this number on traffic to the gift shop and restaurant," he said. "We've easily had 200 percent -- although more like 250 percent increase since the dedication in July. And there's no sign of abating at this point, either."

Socha reported that based on figures supplied by the La Crosse Chamber of Commerce, the shrine could see as many as 200,000 people visiting each year.

Experiencing God

Socha told Our Sunday Visitor that the shrine was conceived by Archbishop Burke as a response to the pastoral needs of his diocese. Since being installed as eighth bishop of La Crosse, he had expressed a desire to establish a Marian shrine to help focus the spiritual lives of the faithful both in the diocese and around the country. He decided to name the shrine in honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe after Pope John Paul II reaffirmed her place as patroness of all the Americas during a 1999 visit to her shrine in Mexico City.

Archbishop Burke has become head of the Supreme Court of the Apostolic Signatura in Rome, but retains his position as chairman of the shrine's board of directors.

In a statement, Archbishop Burke said that he hopes the faithful -- and possible newcomers to the faith -- will renew their love for God and his Mother at the shrine.

"From the first inspiration of the building of a shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe," he said, "the goal has been to build a beautiful church dedicated to our Lord Jesus and his mother, and our mother, Our Lady of Guadalupe, to build a church in which the Mother of God will be venerated and will draw all to her divine Son, the mercy of God Incarnate, above all, in the holy Eucharist and confession."

Providing the soil

The shrine church, Socha said, is the capstone for the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The 100-acre complex includes a votive chapel and a pilgrim center with orientation room, gift shop and a restaurant. Several devotional sites are located on the premises, including a Rosary walk, outdoor Stations of the Cross and sites dedicated to individuals, including Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha.

In 1999, Father Swing's parents, Robert Sr. and Lucille Swing, had donated 70 acres to Bishop Burke's efforts to build a shrine. This donation and an additional 30 acres purchased through privately donated funds became the soil -- literally -- from which the shrine's buildings and devotional areas would grow over the next nine years.

Now, Father Swing and his family see the shrine as a tremendous gift that Archbishop Burke has given to the Church -- and to the Swing family themselves.

"The idea of a shrine was in perfect sync with what my family always talked about what should happen there,Ó Father Swing added. ÒMy parents had always talked about wanting to do something with the land which would help the Church and something that would give it lasting value."

New challenges

While the shrine first opened for business by 2002, the July opening of the new church -- with a 450-seat capacity and daily Mass and confession -- has introduced new challenges to the shrine's mostly volunteer staff.

Helping to meet these challenges, the shrine has a strong Franciscan presence among its staff. Sister Christa Marie Halligan, a Sister of St. Francis of the Martyr St. George, serves as the shrine's executive director, and Peter Mary Fehlner, Franciscan Friar of the Immaculate, serves as the shrine church's rector.

Given the increasing popularity of the shrine, Socha said, its staff has entered "uncharted waters."

"When the Navy launches a ship for the first time, they call it the ship's shakedown cruise," Socha explained. "There are a number of unknowns which will test the ship in open waters. In our case, the analogy fits insofar as we won't know how many pilgrims will be coming -- altogether over the course of a year, say, and at any given time. Will it be a busload? Will we know ahead of time? These are some of the logistical challenges we're in the process of experiencing."

Another aspect of life at the shrine, Socha said, is the greater opportunity for the Sacrament of Penance. As expected, the demand for the sacrament rose with the number of daily visitors to the shrine.

"To the great delight of the friars, there's a lot of people waiting in confession lines,"Socha noted. "The friars have been kept quite busy."
The greater visibility of the shrine, Socha hopes, will educate people in the importance of making pilgrimage a part of their lives.

"For many people, the idea of a pilgrimage is totally alien," Socha said. "Most people can understand going to a day spa to take them away from the world for a day. But the shrine is the true understanding of getting away from the world and spending time in a very special way with God."

Joseph O'Brien writes from Wisconsin.

Miraculous meetings

In a series of apparitions that the Church has declared genuine, in December 1531 Mary asked St. Juan Diego to instruct the bishop of Mexico City, Juan de Zumarraga, to build a chapel where she first appeared to St. Juan on Tepeyac Hill. After the bishop asked the humble peasant for a sign from Our Lady to demonstrate that his claims were genuine, Mary instructed St. Juan to gather roses -- out of season in the winter -- into his tilma, a kind of woven peasant's cloak, and bring them to the bishop.

When St. Juan came before the bishop, he loosened his tilma and the roses tumbled to the floor. If the roses did not convince Bishop Zumarraga, the now-famous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe slowly appearing on St. Juan's tilma did.