St. John might seem like a surprising tourist destination, but it’s well known for many people of Catholic faith.
The Shrine of Christ’s Passion, erected there in 2001, has attracted visitors from all 50 states and more than 40 different countries. The Shrine is an interactive, multimedia “Prayer Trail” that depicts the last days of Jesus Christ’s life. Covering a winding half mile, 40 life-size bronze sculptures, accompanied by music and beautiful gardens, tell the story of Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection.
The vision of Frank Schilling and his wife Shirley, the Shrine is set on 30 acres along U.S. 41. Construction on the interactive winding pathway began in 2001 and included 3,000 yards of concrete, approximately 80 semi loads of boulders, and more than 1,000 trees and bushes. Created by Amarillo, Texas, artist Mickey Wells, the 40 life-size sculptures weigh 300 to 700 pounds apiece.
Each tableau guides visitors through the experience of Christ’s death and resurrection in 18 scenes, beginning with the Last Supper. The setting is meditative and people following the Prayer Trail often find themselves in deep contemplation, some with tears in their eyes.
The journey is wired for sound and at each scene there is a button to press. Visitors then hear a description of the scene before them and a short meditation. “The whole purpose of this project is to touch people’s hearts and inspire them to go out and make a difference in the world. All the words that you hear were written locally and most is right out of scripture,” says Paul J. Anderson, general manager at the Shrine.
Bill Kurtis, former news anchor of Channel 2, narrates each scene and meditation. This is accompanied by original background music written by two young musicians from Chicago. “The mood of the music matches the mood of the scene,” says Anderson. The sound issues from approximately 180 speakers wired throughout the trail.
“Come take the journey” is the Shrine’s fitting tagline. Groups come from across the country and the around the globe to walk the Prayer Trail. Anderson says the Shrine estimates 150,000 to 200,000 visitors each year. On Good Friday alone, 8-10,000 people come. There is parking space for 75 cars and eight tour buses, and the organization provides tour guides and club cars for those who are unable to walk the trail. It is open year-round, weather-permitting.
“One of the Schillings’ goals was to attract people of all faiths, and we have been very successful at doing that,” says Anderson. It helps that the foundation that runs the Shrine is non-denominational.
The construction and subsequent expansions of the Shrine are all funded by the Schillings. Admission is free, but operations are supported by donations and a “magnificent” gift shop, says Anderson. Expanded several times over the years, the gift shop itself has become a destination. Bedecked by hand-painted murals, roman columns, and arches, it boasts fireplaces, an art gallery, and a library with leather seating. Visitors ascend a winding staircase to the mezzanine “where it’s Christmas year round.” The shop stocks more than 10,000 items from inspirational books and religious jewelry to nativity sets and, fittingly, limited edition bronze sculptures. The newest features include a theater, a museum, new larger washrooms, an enlarged art gallery, and a banquet/special occasion room. There is a café and terrace where visitors can eat lunch.
The Shrine is also home to an accompanying Sanctity of Life Shrine, set in a memorial garden, which includes a sculpture of Jesus holding an unborn child before a headstone.
The newest exhibit at the Shrine opened on Mother’s Day this year. It is a depiction of Moses at Mt. Sinai, the place where he is said to have received the Ten Commandments from God. The project took three years to build; thousands of loads of clay and more than 140 truckloads of boulders from a Wisconsin quarry were used to create an impressive mountain. The sculpture, fashioned after Charlton Heston in the movie “The Ten Commandments,” shows Moses coming down Mt. Sinai with the Ten Commandments on two tablets. “The scene looks like you are standing in the middle of the desert,” says Anderson. It includes a burning bush.
As with the other exhibits, the Ten Commandments comes with audio narration. Rev. Sergius Wroblewski, 98, a retired Franciscan priest, reads an inspirational message as well as the commandments.
“There are many people that have said that walking the path has absolutely changed their lives,” says Anderson. With around 32 acres, a portion of which are open land, the Shrine is capable of future expansion. That means the Shrine will be offering its transformative experience to visitors for years to come.