ST. JOHN | After 15 years, Frank Schilling still is developing his vision of The Shrine of Christ's Passion.
Schilling first had the idea for the shrine on U.S. 41 in 2000, but it took eight years and thousands of truckloads of dirt and rock to bring it to fruition. The gift shop opened first in December 2007, and the shrine depicting the last days of Christ opened the following year.
Last year, about 150,000 people visited the shrine and its 18 scenes, starting with Christ at the Last Supper and going through his ascension.
A total of 40 bronze, life-sized figures created by sculptor Mickey Wells, of Amarillo, Texas, can be seen along the mile-long path. The path is lighted, and music composed and performed by P.J. Anderson, the son of Paul Anderson, who is the general manager of the shrine, and David Goldman sets the tone for each scene.
The scenes have a narration by Chicago newsman Bill Kurtis.
Schilling said the gift shop has been expanded several times already and now carries more than 16,000 items. And it's about to be expanded again. The newest expansion will relocate the bathrooms and the access to the pathway leading to the shrine's displays. It also will lead to the newest addition to the shrine's Biblical history tour: Moses on Mount Sinai.
To create the new feature, all Schilling had to do was build a mountain, albeit a small one. He got the idea four years ago, and construction started two years ago.
When completed before the end of the year, it will be 60 feet high with the bronze figure of Moses fashioned after the scene in the movie "The Ten Commandments" with Charlton Heston holding the two stone tablets, one on each arm. The scene also will have a burning bush.
Schilling estimated a total of 160 truck loads of boulders from a central Wisconsin quarry will be brought in to create the foundation for the mountain. Most of the stones are so big, only five or six could be placed each day. Smaller stones near the top give the impression of depth and hundreds of loads of dirt, much of it from the construction of the addition to Lake Central High School, were brought in for the project.
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About 5,000 feet of cable were needed for the lighting and sound systems, and the lighting will change colors. Instead of Cecil B. DeMille and Heston providing the voice of God, Schilling recruited Rev. Sergius Wroblewski, 98, a retired Franciscan priest, to read the commandments.
He wanted Wroblewski's appropriately celestial voice for the narration so much it actually was recorded three years ago because of his age. When the quality of the recording was not what Schilling wanted, the reverend was still available and they were able to have it redone in a professional studio recently.
The completion of his Mount Sinai project won't be the end of Schilling's vision for the shrine.
"My wife Shirley and I got 12 more acres that we donated to the foundation," he said. "That makes the total 32 acres. We thought it was prudent to have that for future expansion."
He said a retreat center, a chapel and, some day, a hotel might be added.
"Anything's possible," he said. "We might not see it in our lifetime, but it's our vision."
It's all part of the goal of attracting 500,000 visitors a year. In the meantime, Schilling is trying to set up an endowment fund to keep it going and growing. He said it costs about $500,000 a year to operate and maintain the shrine, and it will need additional money for roofs and other major maintenance that occurs in the future.
Visitors can see the shrine for free although donations are welcome. The donations and the income from the gift shop support the operation, but Schilling said he would like to see the shrine included on the list of places people could consider when planning their estates as a way to properly fund the endowment.