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Bronze Jesus and a Roman tormenter.
Bronze Jesus and a Roman tormenter.

Shrine of Christ's Passion and Millennium Mary

Field review by the editors.

St. John, Indiana

In 1954, Frank Wachter took an acre of his Indiana farm next to US 41 -- one of the nation's busiest north-south routes at the time -- and turned it into a Roman Catholic shrine with a 15-foot-tall Italian marble Madonna. It was the biggest thing around, a real pull-off-the-road attraction. Fitting her impressive size, the statue acquired the name, "The Great Lady."

Rust-resistant Millennium Mary: built of stainless steel.
Rust-resistant Millennium Mary: built of stainless steel.

The rural countryside gradually became suburbs, and by the turn of the 21st century The Great Lady no longer seemed so great -- at least not to Frank's grandson, Frank Schilling. He wanted more pizzazz. Through a series of small miracles, the kind that seem to always occur in stories like this, Frank S. reacquired the old Wachter family farm, built a church, and planned to connect it to the highway shrine with a path lined with simple Stations of the Cross.

Then Frank took a road trip through Texas and made an unplanned stop at the Groom Cross -- which displays life-size bronze statues of Jesus in his final tortured hours. Frank liked them so much that he ordered a set for his new shrine. The simple pathway grew into an elaborate half-mile-long "Shrine of Christ's Passion," with imported boulders and trees and landscaping designed to mimic The Holy Land. Its serpentine trail was wide enough to accommodate golf carts. Miles of fiber optic cable carried lighting, background music (15 original songs), and assistance buttons for out-of-breath visitors who should have taken a golf cart. Frank even hired CBS news anchor Bill Kurtis (who owned the Little House on the Prairie) to narrate each Station at the touch of a button.

Attention to detail includes scar marks on Jesus's flesh.
Attention to detail includes scar marks on Jesus's flesh.

After eight years of construction, and at a reported cost of $10 million, the shrine opened in 2008. The Great Lady was still a part of it, out by the highway. But not for long.

While Frank Schilling was upscaling his grandfather's shrine, Carl Demma was at work on his own Catholic mega-attraction in Chicago. Since boyhood, Carl had believed that God wanted him to bring a giant Madonna to the Midwest. In another stroke of luck (or divine intervention), a 32-foot-tall Mary stopped in Chicago on her way to a church in California. Carl was dazzled by the stainless steel statue and hired the sculptor to build another one. The sculptor miscalculated and made this new Mary two feet taller; she weighed over four tons. Carl was thrilled. He had her loaded onto a trailer, fresh from her foundry, and rushed her to St. Louis just in time for a 1999 papal visit. Pope John Paul II saw the giant statue from his "Popemobile," gave her the sign of the cross, and Our Lady of the New Millennium, as she came to be known, was officially blessed.

They wanted tomb rocks resembling those of the Holy Land. These came from Wisconsin.
The Shrine wanted tomb rocks resembling those of the Holy Land. These came from Wisconsin.

Carl spent a year hauling his Mary to various parishes and tourist spots, looking for a permanent home, then died. His widow later visited the Shrine of Christ's Passion and met Frank Schilling, who told her that his shrine would be the perfect permanent spot for Millennium Mary. The statue arrived in 2011, and for two years stood in the church's parking lot. Fans of the original Great Lady were worried -- with good reason. In 2013 the old statue was hauled away from her roadside spot of almost 60 years and replaced with the taller, newer, flashier Mary. Frank Schilling had his pizzazz, but a lot of Catholics in northwest Indiana are still not happy about it.

Jesus ascends heavenward, shedding his shroud.
Jesus ascends heavenward, shedding his shroud.

Like a modern-day interactive wax museum, a walk through the Shrine of Christ's Passion gets you up close and personal with historical figures. It's easy to spot the bad guys; they all have evil scowls or immodest pagan outfits. The bronze versions of Jesus grow increasingly whip-scarred as the trail of passion progresses, and the piped-in music moves from sad to ominous; pounding drums evoke hammering nails.

In the Ascension grotto, narrator Kurtis tells everyone that, "Jesus knew for all eternity that you would be here today." And way, way in the back, at the furthest point of the trail, hidden behind Calvary hill, is The (former) Great Lady. She stands outside the new church, her audience now reduced mostly to its parishioners.

So there are really three religious attractions in one here: The Great Lady (1954), Millennium Mary (1999), and the Shrine of Christ's Passion (2008). Mary, an eye-catcher, seems ideally suited to her new role as an upscale wayside Madonna, holding her own against the shrine's digital billboard, gift shop, and visitor center. A sign next to Mary's prayer box explains that Carl Demma was just a regular guy; "He did not see visions or witness miracles." And, echoing Bill Kurtis, it declares, "You are not here today by accident!"

Shrine of Christ's Passion and Millennium Mary

10630 Wicker Ave., St. John, IN
US Hwy 41 on the southbound side, north of US Hwy 231.
Daily 10-5, Th until 8. (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

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Shoe CornerShoe Corner, Hanover Township, IN - 2 mi.
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In the region:
Stand on Brick 66, Joliet, IL - 33 mi.

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