As I type this article it’s Easter Sunday, a fitting time to resurrect the story of a recent car-free pilgrimage I made to a regional holy site. It was a personal Way of the Cross, if you will.
The landmark is the Shrine of Christ’s Passion, a multimedia, interactive, half-mile-long prayer trail and sculpture garden. It depicts the route Jesus Christ took to Mount Calvary, just outside the walls of Jerusalem, before He was crucified.
The attraction is located in St. John, Indiana, a bedroom community of about 20,000, located forty miles southeast of the Loop. The complex sits by the side of U.S. 41 on the southern outskirts of town, right on the border of the Chicago metropolitan region and the rural Bible Belt.
The shrine is an impressive sight, built with roughly 200 semi-truckloads of boulders from Wisconsin, used to create a Holy Land-like landscape. Over a thousand trees and bushes were planted. There are fifteen Stations of the Cross featuring forty life-sized bronze sculptures by Texas-based artist Mickey Wells, each weighing 300 to 700 pounds. There’s dramatic background music and lighting at night. And each tableau has a push-button speaker that emits rich basso narration by legendary CBS Channel 2 anchor Bill Kurtis, also of “Anchorman” and “Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me!” fame.
The site is essentially a tranquil Christian theme park, run by a nonprofit organization. Representatives didn’t respond to my interview requests. But the website RoadsideAmerica.com filled me in on the backstory.
The landmark’s origins go back to 1954, when Roman Catholic farmer Frank Wachter used an acre of his land to install a fifteen-foot-tall Italian marble Madonna that became known as “The Great Lady.” His grandson Frank Schilling spent eight years and some $10 million building the prayer path, which opened in 2008.
Meanwhile, Chicago liquor-store owner Carl Demma was fulfilling his boyhood dream of creating a giant metal Madonna sculpture, inspired by the Ceres statue atop the Chicago Board of Trade. Demma’s thirty-three-foot-tall, four-ton stainless steel monument became known as “Our Lady of the New Millennium” and was hauled to different churches and tourist sites on a flatbed trailer.
After Demma’s death, his widow Fran visited the Shrine of Christ’s Passion and agreed with Schilling that the site should be the statue’s permanent home. In 2013 “Our Lady of the New Millennium” was installed by the roadside, and the marble “Great Lady” was relocated next to a church at the top of the prayer trail’s re-creation of Calvary Hill. The shrine has been expanded with a few more attractions since then.
My Twitter acquaintance “Wait, Wait…” host Peter Sagal kindly put me in touch with Bill Kurtis, now eighty-two, who does announcements for the quiz show and is working on his memoir. It was striking to hear Kurtis’ magisterial voice over the phone.
Recording the narration “was quite an experience,” Kurtis intones. He was raised Methodist and switched over to the Disciples of Christ, a Protestant denomination, when he got married. “I’m not a regular at church, but I do have an interest in religion.”
Frank Schilling and his people approached Kurtis about doing the narration, which includes descriptions of the tableaus and readings of relevant passages from the New Testament. It was recorded from Kurtis’ own sound booth at his production company. “They were at the other end listening and I got into it, and they got into it. And I wouldn’t say I had a supernatural feeling, but I was feeling really good, and I think they were moved.”
Kurtis says he’s probably received more positive feedback about those recordings than anything else he’s done. “People really connect with it. So I’m so pleased with it.”
I first visited the shrine last July, when I was in St. John on other business. Intrigued, I returned three months later to take a closer look.
On a warm, cloudless October morning, I catch the South Shore Line commuter railroad from the Loop with my bicycle and de-train in East Chicago, Indiana. From there it’s a roughly eighteen-mile pedal on smaller roads to the shrine. If you’re in a hurry, sticking to Route 41 shaves off a few miles, but biking on that high-speed multilane highway is strictly for “strong and fearless” cyclists. Another option is to take the CTA Red Line to 95th Street and ride twenty-nine miles to the site.
Whatever route you take, I recommend refueling at Johnsen’s Blue Top Drive-In on U.S. 41 in Highland, Indiana, about halfway between the shrine and East Chicago. It’s a meet-up for classic car aficionados with trapped-in-amber Atomic Age architecture.
After an hour-and-a-half of sweaty pedaling to the holy site, I use the bathroom of a nearby Target to clean up and switch to church-worthy clothing. As I pull up to the shrine, I’m greeted by the enormous “Our Lady of the New Millennium” statue, gleaming in the sunshine. She’s crowned with flowers, and her placid face is framed by long flowing hair, resembling a young Joni Mitchell.
Ida Rosales, a home healthcare worker from Chicago’s Rogers Park who’s a Filipina immigrant, has placed some flowers by the monument. “I promised that this week I would visit the Blessed Virgin, and I’m bringing her some roses as a response to all the protection that we ask her to grace us with,” she says. “She’s the Blessed Queen entrusted by God, and I’ve believed in her since the day I was born.”
Rosales says she cares for a Polish-American woman named Natalie, who lives near St. Hilary Church in the West Ridge neighborhood, and is unable to walk. In the early 2010s, Natalie said, “Ida, tomorrow morning at 2am the lady will arrive.” Shortly after that, the local priest stopped by Natalie’s home for a visit and announced that “Our Lady of the New Millennium” would be coming to St. Hilary as part of its tour of churches, arriving early in the morning. So it appeared Natalie had a premonition.
“Wasn’t that a miracle?” Ida asks me.
I leave the serene statue to check out a more controversial sight, the nearby Sanctity of Life Shrine, located in front of the facility’s 12,000-square-foot Gift Shoppe. A sculpture of Jesus kneels with tears streaming down his face as he cups a fetus in his hands. In front of Him a headstone reads, “In Loving Memory of the Innocent Victims of Abortion.”
The atmosphere is lighter in The Gift Shoppe, as it’s known, which sells religious items, jewelry, artwork and children’s gifts, Catholic lawn ornaments and other tchotchkes. Much of the retail space is dedicated to home signs and tote bags with affirmations of faith like “God is good all the time,” “Jesus, I trust in you,” and “Do what you can and leave the rest to God.”
On the mezzanine level it’s “Christmas year round” with holiday decorations and Nativity scenes. The framed art section reflects the Shrine of Christ’s Passion’s conservative leanings. You can buy a painting of Republican presidents from Lincoln to Nixon to George W. Bush playing pool together.
Sure, the Shrine of Christ’s Passion may not be everybody’s cup of wine. The conservative undertones may be a dealbreaker for some, and if you grew up with Catholic guilt, the imagery may conjure unpleasant childhood memories.
Still, the shrine is a fascinating place, entry is free, and it’s open 24/7 so you might consider making your own pilgrimage. Overall I find it to be an interesting and pleasant place to pass time, even though I’m not a religious Christian, but rather a semi-observant Jew.
Arguably the shrine gives a shout-out to Jewish folks with its “Moses, Mount Sinai, and the Ten Commandments” exhibit, opened in 2016. Leaving The Gift Shoppe, I take a separate path to an impressively craggy human-made canyon where Moses stands with the tablets, the spitting image of Charlton Heston in “The Ten Commandments.” A sign with an image of a surveillance camera warns, “If seen climbing on rocks, you will be asked to leave.”
From there I head through a tunnel to Our Lady of Guadalupe Plaza, which explicitly honors the Mexican community. It opened in May 2022 with a ceremony that included a mariachi band and traditional Aztec dancing by people wearing feathered headdresses and ankle bells. There are bronze sculptures portraying the Blessed Mother as she appeared before Saint Juan Diego, an Indigenous man, in 1531 in the mountains near Mexico City. He saw the Virgin Mary as a dark-skinned indigenous woman.
There’s a small but elegant Southwestern-style adobe chapel, and a grotto full of prayer candles and laminated cards commemorating loved ones. One card honors Joshua Avina Luna, fifteen, who was fatally struck on his bike by a postal worker last June in Chicago’s Clearing neighborhood.
I backtrack to the start of the prayer trail, which begins with a scene of the Last Supper, which was a Passover Seder Jesus shared with the twelve apostles. The matzah was his body, and the Passover wine was his blood.
A bronze statue of Jesus sits at the stone table, but the other seats are empty. At the end of the prerecorded message describing the scene, Bill Kurtis says, “You are welcome to sit with him at his table, just as his apostles did.”
Next is the Garden of Gethsemane, and then Pilate’s Court. In front of the temple-like structure, the Roman governor, looking like George Costanza from “Seinfeld,” scowls as he washes his hands to condemn Jesus to death as he sorrowfully looks on.
The following eight stations involve Jesus taking up his large wooden cross and carrying it toward Calvary, meeting people along the way like Mary, Saint Veronica, and one of the women of Jerusalem. Soldiers in helmets, armor, leather kilts and sandals leer at him while brandishing whips. Somber music featuring acoustic guitar arpeggios and violins plays in the background.
Near the scene where Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus carry the cross, I meet married couple Jacob and Mary Ellen Beachy, a delivery truck driver and school bus driver from rural Ohio, who are white. They’re conservative Mennonites and Jacob grew up in a traditional Amish family. Unlike his parents, he doesn’t eschew modern technology, but he’s still in good graces with his family. “After we were married, I wanted a few more things, electricity and a car. But our religious beliefs are exactly the same.”
Jacob’s brother and his wife, who stick to Amish traditions and dress accordingly, join us. “We can save ourselves some grief by not just living the same lifestyle as the rest of the world, looking the same and going to the same places,” the brother says. “That way you don’t invite temptation.”
The four have stopped by the holy site on their way to Fair Oaks Farms, an agritourism destination and hotel forty miles south. “[The shrine is] Catholic, I realize that,” Jacob says. “But I believe in the shed blood of Christ for the forgiveness of our sins, and that’s the only way to get to Heaven. You can read your Bible, but [the sculptures] make it more real—the trail of the crucifixion and the suffering.”
Indeed, the sculptures hammer home the agony Jesus endured on the Way of Sorrows, so to speak. After he falls three times and is stripped of his garments, a particularly shocking tableau shows a soldier nailing him to the cross.
After that is the scene of Jesus dying on the cross between two crucified thieves. Beyond the three crosses, across from the St. John the Evangelist Parish megachurch, stands the “Great Lady,” the site’s original marble Madonna. Norma Bond, from Elkhart, Indiana, and Janie Lopez, who lives in Michigan, are standing nearby. They’re Mexican American. The shrine seems to attract a relatively diverse crowd, including Asian-Americans, Blacks, Latinos and non-Hispanic whites.
Bond used to work for 7-Eleven visiting franchises in the area, and often stopped at the shrine to meditate. Last November her husband died, and in June she was in a car crash and suffered a head injury and memory loss. “We were married for thirty years,” she says, tearing up. “I’ve been through a lot.”
“This is her place of peace and she wanted to see the Virgin Mary to get some strength,” Lopez says. “Everybody needs some of this in their life.”
The prayer trail loops back, with more stations showing Jesus being taken down from the cross, laid in his tomb, and then a post-resurrection scene. The final tableau portrays him ascending to Heaven with his shroud trailing behind him, looking like a cross between Jim Morrison and Robert Plant, arms outstretched and shirtless with his long hair flying and impressive six-pack abs.
When I press the button on the speaker, Kurtis solemnly tells me, “Jesus knew from all eternity that you would be here today, and he wants you to take him with you, out into a troubled world that needs him so desperately. Go. Change your world. May the blessings of the journey of Christ’s passion stay with you always.” Introspective, yet uplifting piano music plays.
As I mounted my bicycle by Our Lady of the New Millennium to ride north as the sun set, Bill Kurtis’ final statement did, in fact, inspire me a bit to try to improve my world.