Bishop Baraga - Shrine of the Snowshoe Priest
The Shrine of The Snowshoe Priest has long beckoned the Roadside America crew. It has a great name, and a giant holy man holding a pair of 28-foot tall snowshoes, but was always just a little too far afield. We finally got there.
Located in Michigan's upper Upper Peninsula, the remote non-denominational shrine still gets 100,000 visitors a year. It's just off Highway 41, but no billboards announce the impending turnoff. Look for the "Bishop Baraga Shrine" teepees on the south side of the highway. A quiet road takes you back into the woods over railroad tracks and past piles of logs.
The shrine itself is a simple set-up. There is no chapel, no woodland stations of the cross. There are some picnic tables and a place to light candles that is shaped like a miniature Indian longhouse. The Bishop Baraga Shrine Gift and Pasty Shop is over to the right and is privately owned and separate from the Bishop Baraga Foundation.
The monument is not at the top of a hill -- one walks down to see it. There are no stairs to ascend on your knees, as advised at some shrines. And it is fully visible from the entrance, maybe a hundred yards away. The effect is to keep the statue's great size from the visitor until you are quite close.
But when you get closer it starts to grow. The whole thing stands six stories. Five nine-and-a-half foot teepees, each representing an Indian mission started by Baraga, hold massive curved wood beams that meet at a stainless steel cloud twenty-five feet above the ground. Standing atop the cloud, snowshoes in his left hand and a seven foot cross in the his right, is a thirty-five foot tall brass Bishop Baraga statue. The cloud, combined with the curved wooden support beams, make it look like the Bishop is riding a giant spider.
From up close, the Bishop's expression and posture -- holding out the cross like Van Helsing -- make him look more than a bit like a Michael Palin character in Monty Python (note: We know Terry Jones was the actual Python character called "The Bishop" - no emails please).
But who was this man who rode giant spiders into the northland winter wilderness, saving Native souls?
A native of Slovenia, Baraga arrived in the United States in 1830 after spending years fighting The heresy of Jansenism, against the wishes of his Bishop and other clergy, according to a booklet available at the gift shop called The Snowshoe Priest. In his early thirties, Baraga went to Michigan to minister the Indians of the Great Lakes, starting near Grand Rapids, then moving north. He traveled by foot as much as seven hundred miles in the winter, and to properly get out among his charges, he started using snowshoes -- first arriving in L'Anse, on the shores of Lake Superior's Keweenaw Bay, in 1843. He wrote, "L'Anse is an unpleasant sad, sterile place." Baraga learned to speak Chippewa and Ottawa, and wrote a Chippewa dictionary in 1852. He died peacefully in 1863, beloved by his flock.
In 1950, the Bishop Baraga Association was formed, seeking to have Baraga canonized. The idea of a shrine followed, and by 1970, the final design was approved. Fourteen volumes of Baraga's saintly acts were produced and sent to The Vatican in 1972. Perhaps because there is so much material, the Vatican is still mulling it over, four decades later.
Or perhaps the superstitious Holy See heard about what happened at the monument's dedication in May 1972. As the Bishop's statue was being lowered onto the cloud, a portion of the statue's hemline caught on one of the beams. When an acetylene torch was used to cut it away, the polyurethane lining within the statue ignited, and in moments smoke and fire engulfed the sculpture. As noted in The Snowshoe Priest, which contains a photo of the giant smoking monument, "The crowd reacted as might well be expected: hysteria, crying and prayers." After some minor repair work, the damage was repaired and statue was placed permanently that June -- but what of the damage to the Bishop's Sainthood chances back in Rome?
As the decades have passed, with no Sainthood in sight, the foundation set up to maintain the shrine asks for donations to do repair work necessary because of the elements. Donations from lighting candles only helps with routine maintenance, and the gift shop owners donate the electricity for lighting the shrine at night.
But the Bishop Baraga Shrine Gift And Pasty (pass-tee) Shop was put up for auction in September 2005. The two ladies who owned it wanted to retire, and no longer wanted to pay the night electric bill. Will pilgrims still come if there are no longer Shrine Pasties for sale? (Pasties are an upper peninsula favorite made of diced potatoes, carrots, onions, rutabagas, and meat stuffed inside a large dough ball and baked. The Shrine is known for its 1.25-pound pasties.)
There are currently 1,500 causes for Sainthood clogging the courts in Rome, about thirty from the U.S. alone. How can Bishop Baraga cut through the clutter, if a sixty-foot monument didn't?
First, they probably need to make the shrine "denominational" again. From visiting other Catholic shrines, we get the sense that there's a lot of jockeying in the last stages of ascribing sainthood. And it appears to us like Bishop Baraga and his shrine are on the outside looking in.
However, a Saint in the U.P. would be a great boon for religious tourism in the area. And that in turn would be a plus for the many Indian casinos that have blossomed up there. Given that Baraga--"Blackcoat" as the native called him--gave so much to the Indians, helping to save their souls, now that they have the economic ability to give back, perhaps the casinos should take up his cause.
Note: Pasties can be ordered by phone and shipped anywhere by second day air.