Hundreds at blessing of Indiana shrine in awe of church's restored beauty

ST. MEINRAD, Ind. (CNS) -- A steady stream of vehicles climbed the narrow, winding road that dead-ends on the hilltop named Monte Cassino Hill.

Beginning more than an hour before the appointed time, hundreds alighted from their cars on the outskirts of the town of St. Meinrad and headed toward a small sandstone building that crowns the landscape.

"We just wanted to peek at the shrine before everything started," laughed St. Meinrad resident Jennifer Kunkler as she watched the bustle. "I guess that's what everyone else thought too."

The pilgrims struggled to squeeze past one another in the single aisle of the 24-by-50-foot chapel. Eyes and fingers pointed upward with hushed exclamations of "wow" and "beautiful."

"To see what they've done now, it is absolutely -- it brings tears to my eyes it's so gorgeous," Kunkler said.

The gathering Oct. 1 marked the conclusion of a more than two-year restoration project. The small sandstone building, named the Monte Cassino Shrine after the famous Italian monastery founded by St. Benedict, has a history nearly as long as the nearby Benedictine-run St. Meinrad Archabbey.

"The chapel actually started with the picture of Our Lady being tacked to a tree by one of the monks," explained Benedictine Archabbot Kurt Stasiak, referring to the year 1857.

Over the next decade, word spread about the makeshift shrine and pilgrims journeyed to the hilltop to pray to Our Lady of Monte Cassino. The archabbey dedicated the present structure in 1870.

Less than two years later, the shrine gained fame for what is widely believed to be a miracle. An epidemic of smallpox broke out in St. Meinrad, taking the lives of several townspeople. As members of the monastery and seminary fell ill, the community processed to the shrine and began a novena to Our Lady of Monte Cassino.

"After that novena, the infirmary emptied out and no more people either in the seminary or the archabbey contracted the smallpox," said Archabbot Stasiak, "and so we attribute the good recovery, the health to the intercession of Our Lady."

Thus began regular pilgrimages up the hill to the Monte Cassino Shrine. Every Sunday in October and May, months traditionally dedicated to Mary, hundreds flock to southern Indiana from as far as Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Louisville, Kentucky, for prayers and a rosary procession.

"We've brought my family here from out of state to see it," said Lucy Himstedt, a parishioner of St. Benedict Cathedral in Evansville, Indiana. "It's special."

"People have come up here during times of war, during times of peace," Archabbot Stasiak told CNS. "It's a place that's made holy because of the things that people have done up here: pray, expressing their dependence on God, asking God's favor."

Two years ago, a donor offered to help fund a full restoration of the weather-worn shrine. A year of planning led to the start of construction in the spring of 2016. Work concluded just before this year's first fall pilgrimage Oct. 1, which was attended by an excited crowd of about 500 people.

Most pilgrims arrived well before the prayer service began and took dozens of pictures in the crowded shrine. Many commented on the now-vibrant, gold-accented murals that cover the chapel's walls and the ceiling.

"When you walked in, it was stunning," said Himstedt. "The whole thing was beautifully done."

Originally painted in 1931, these intricate depictions of Mary had been cracked, worn and damaged by moisture in the building. Thoroughly cleaned and retouched by the professional restoration company Conrad Schmitt Studios Inc., the images also were given new life by modern lighting that was installed throughout the space.

The lower portion of the walls was previously a stark white that contrasted with the decor of the rest of the space. These were decorated with period artwork designed by a St. Meinrad monk, Brother Martin Erspamer.

"(The project) cost an excess of $600,000. A large portion of that was the art restoration," said Andy Hagedorn, director of physical facilities at St. Meinrad. "We were very fortunate to be able to go all out and get it done right."

Essential repairs included the stabilization of the shrine's foundation as well as filling and sealing the mortar joints of the sandstone walls. Workers also installed a heating and cooling system to protect the artwork from temperature changes and add to the comfort of visitors.

The grounds, formerly comprised of gravel and grass, received a new prayer garden, a large paved area around the chapel and a surrounding sandstone wall.

"We cut sandstone from the quarry which is just right over the hill -- there's an old quarry where the sandstone came for the shrine years ago in 1870," Hagedorn said.

The visitors seated themselves in newly installed benches around the shrine, crowded onto the sandstone wall or set out their own lawn chairs for the outdoor prayer service.

Archabbot Stasiak blessed the grounds and the chapel with holy water, the group sang several hymns and pilgrims prayed the rosary as they processed around the hilltop carrying a statue of Mary.

Attendees lingered long after the conclusion of the service. Many had personally donated to the restoration effort to preserve the beloved location for future generations.

"This will last through our grandchildren now," said Himstedt. "So we'll bring them here to spend time."

"It's important to the abbey, but I think it's equally important to the community. Not just this community here (in St. Meinrad), but a much larger community," explained Michael Edwards, a resident of the area.

"This is our cathedral," he said.