Trinity Heights: Giant Jesus and Mary
Sioux City, Iowa
If you'd drive all day to pray at the base of a giant Virgin Mary statue, how much further would you go if that statue was wrought and hammered from gleaming steel? And was only a short walk from a gargantuan steel Jesus statue? And midway between the two was a life-size Last Supper carved out of lumber?
The people of Sioux City are fortunate, because this Holy Trinity of tourism is just minutes from downtown, on a quiet rise called Trinity Heights.
Trinity Heights was the dream of Father Harold Cooper. On a trip to California in 1985, he saw an immense stainless steel Mary in Santa Clara (This was not a vision; the statue is still there). Convinced that Sioux City needed a big metal Mary of its own, Father Cooper and some friends tried to buy an old Catholic college property on the edge of town.
It was, however, owned by a Savings and Loan, which valued it higher than the priest could afford. Father Cooper and his colleagues began gathering on the site every day at 4 PM to pray for a miracle. In 1987 the Savings and Loan crisis erupted, real estate crashed, and Father Cooper was able to buy the land for a quarter of its previous price.
Mary, at 30 feet tall, went up in 1992. Jesus, three feet taller, went up in 1998. They were built by Dale Claude Lamphere, a busy guy in Sioux City, who also sculpted the Flight 232 Memorial down by the riverfront and a six-foot St Francis and seven-foot Moses at Trinity Heights as well.
Mary and Jesus each weigh five tons, and have the clean lines that one expects from a metal used in upscale barbeques and refrigerators. Mary stands with arms outstretched and face tilted down toward her tiny visitors. She appears to be standing in a stiff breeze, her steel robe swept to one side, her sacred thorn-wrapped heart popping out of a fold. Jesus, similarly garbed, stands on the other end of the grounds and appears to be striding forward, on the lookout for human ants in his path. Gangway for the Big Messiah!
Stretched between the Herculean holies are many acres of quiet, spotless grounds dotted with trees, prayer stations, and benches. Most of it appears to be sponsored. There's a statue of Archangel Michael slaying the serpent, shrines commemorating Mary's most popular appearances over the centuries, and an anti-abortion memorial. Trinity Heights has reportedly poured more than $1 million into its own development, and draws a reported 100,000 visitors each year. Much is forbidden here, however, including pets, walking on the grass, sitting on the rocks, dipping in the water. "Quiet Please," one sign commands, "People Are Praying."
Smack in the middle of Trinity Heights is St Joseph Center, built to shelter a life-size wood sculpture of the Last Supper carved with a hand chisel by Jerry Traufler from nearby Le Mars. It took Jerry seven years, working in a shed in his back yard after his daytime job as a postal worker. According to Jerry, it's one of only four life-size wood Last Suppers in the world (Another one is here). It's been displayed at Trinity Heights since 1996.
The characters are expressively well-rendered for wood and all, though the rustic effect of the lathed goblets and chiseled tunics might suggest a celebrity roast in Sherwood Forest (at least to someone momentarily possessed by demons and trying to think of something funny about the sculpture).
Jerry used his wife and neighbors as models, and the table alone is 22 feet long. We asked our guide if Jerry used special wood. "Nope, just pine lumber," he replied. "Like you'd buy at Home Depot."
As if the textural delights of steel and pine weren't enough, Trinity Heights also displays an impressive wall hanging of the head of Jesus, made by Jerry out of burlap bags.
But the Last Supper gets most of the attention. And Trinity Heights has been glad to add it to its roster of religious art, as it attracts Christians who are not necessarily Catholic, and whose taste in iconography is large, but not quite XXXL.