Black Madonna Shrine and Grottoes
Polish Franciscan missionaries emigrated to Missouri in the 1920s, were given an abandoned convent in the foothills of the Ozarks, and built an infirmary. Brother Bronislaus Luszcz was in charge of the gardens.
By 1937 he evidently had extra time and inspiration, so he built a shrine to Our Lady of Czestochowa (Chance-ta-hova), the supposedly indestructible "Black Madonna" painting of Poland (named because of the darker skin hues on the figures, attributed to centuries of exposure to candle smoke). Then Brother B. began building a series of elaborate rock grottoes to Mary, Jesus, and various saints.
The Black Madonna shrine shelters several replicas of the famous painting, including one sealed under glass that was touched to the original. The shrine's small gift shop sells miniatures of the grottoes as well as a 1994 video that ably overviews Brother Bronislaus' exhausting work.
We bought a video, and quizzed the gift shop manager about two plastic water coolers on folding tables outside the door. One was filled with complementary ice water, the other informally labeled as holy water ("Do not drink or play with. God bless."). Seemed potentially risky to us, but the brother said that mistaken guzzling of holy water was not a sin. "It won't hurt you," he said, "but it's not real fresh."
Brother Bronislaus spent the last 23 years of his life building the grottoes behind the Black Madonna shrine. Using only an axe and a sledgehammer, he cleared a wooded hillside; built pathways, walls, and a bridge; and smashed tons of rock -- hauled in by dump trucks -- for the grottoes. "It was back-breaking labor," the video assured us, "but he did it out of love for Mary."
Brother Bronislaus kept his grottoes focused and his materials humble. No American flags or Presidential tributes appear as at other Catholic shrines, and no fancy rocks from far-away lands were used as decoration. He poured concrete into cake pans to make bunnies and sheep for the St. Francis Grotto.
At the St. Joseph Grotto he made pots from Jell-o molds, pillars from coffee cans, and flowers from paper cupcake holders filled with cement.
He set colored glass jars lengthwise into the walls of the Peter, James, and John Grotto to cast green sunlight on the sleepy saints. "Brother found a use for many things that the rest of us consider junk," said the video, praising his decorative use of marbles, burned-out light bulbs, and discarded costume jewelry.
The statues populating the grottoes were sculpted by another local immigrant, Charles Bendel. The crucified Jesus atop Crucifixion Overlook, according to the shrine, "has led many a lost soul to safety" who otherwise might have perished in the woods. Surprisingly, Brother Bronislaus' favorite grotto statue was not of Mary, Jesus, or the saints, but of a boy playing with a dog.
The grottoes at the Black Madonna Shrine are a monument to single-handed effort, and one wonders how big this place would have been had Brother Bronislaus kept going. The parking lot is surrounded by statues for grottoes never built -- including St. Anthony, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and Our Lady of Czestochowa herself.
Brother Bronislaus was chopping down trees for an Our Lady of Fatima Grotto when he collapsed on a sweltering day in August 1960, then crawled to the Our Lady of Perpetual Help Grotto. The brothers noticed him missing from evening prayers, combed the grottoes, and found his body -- the exact spot is now marked by a solitary seashell cemented into the ground.
Brother Bronislaus has been gone for more than 50 years, and although his work has suffered some wear and tear, the grottoes are pretty much as he left them. He had no apprentice to carry on his labors, no successor Brother to smash rocks or raid the infirmary kitchen for cake molds. Though simple travel brochures have been regionally distributed over the years, the Black Madonna Shrine and Grottoes were never commercialized, and remain as remote as they were in Brother Bronislaus' heyday, missing only the incessant whack of his axe and pounding of his sledgehammer.