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New shrine sculptures expected to draw thousands more to St. John

 shrine first

Mike Lulkowski, of Padgett Custom Homes, carries a piece of wood to help set the bronze statue of Juan Diego in place temporarily outside St. John the Evangelist church. The statue and its companion statue depicting Our Lady of Guadalupe will be moved to the grounds of the Shrine of Christ's Passion in St. John in about two years. (Vanessa Negrete photo)


by Vanessa Negrete

Northwest Indiana Catholic


      ST. JOHN – The sound of snapping wood cracked the air on a sunny Friday in August as workers pulled away the walls of a crate, revealing a piece of art more than two years in the making.

      “Beautiful, isn’t it?” remarked Father Sammie Maletta, pastor of St. John the Evangelist, as a crew set in place an approximately 9-foot-tall bronze sculpture of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

      The St. John church will host the statue and its companion piece, a bronze replica of Juan Diego on bended knee, for about two years outside its main entrance until a space is prepared at the nearby Shrine of Christ’s Passion, just east of the church.

      “We get to benefit from the expansion of the shrine, at least for a little while,” Father Maletta said.

      The shrine and the church are not connected in an official way, but they are sympatico, he added.

      The Shrine of Christ’s Passion annually draws hundreds of thousands of pilgrims. Opened in 2008 and set on 30 acres, the shrine is a multimedia religious attraction that includes a half-mile winding path depicting the Passion of Christ as well as a depiction of Moses and the Ten Commandments, the Last Supper, Garden of Gethsemane, the Sanctity of Life Shrine, a 33-foot-tall stainless steel Mary called Our Lady of the New Millennium and a gift shop with meeting space and a café.

      The new statues depicting Our Lady of Guadalupe and Juan Diego are expected to draw thousands more once the statues have a permanent home at the shrine, said Paul Anderson, general manager.

      “We feel it’s going to double our attendance,” he said.

      The shrine was the vision and creation of philanthropist Frank Schilling. He was there when the two new statues emerged from their crates, shipped from Colorado artist Austin Weishel. Schilling pointed to the fine details the artist incorporated.

      “His instructions were to duplicate (the original) perfectly,” Schilling said. “Every detail, every star, every flower on her vestments, all the symbols, the color, the look – to replicate the original. I don’t think it’s ever been done in bronze to that detail.”

      The sculpture is based on the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe that was imprinted on the tilma – or cloak – of Juan Diego.

      According to Catholic belief, the Blessed Mother appeared to Juan Diego on Dec. 9, 1531, near Mexico City. She asked him to petition the bishop for a shrine to be built on the site, but the bishop wanted a sign. Three days later, Juan Diego returned to the location. Mary appeared and told him to pick flowers blooming on the hill, wrap them in his tilma and bring them to the bishop. When he opened the tilma, the flowers fell out and the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe was emblazoned on the tilma, explains the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

      The tilma remains on display in the Basilica de Guadalupe in Mexico City. When Schilling and Anderson visited the basilica before commissioning the statues for the Shrine of Christ’s Passion, they were in awe of the huge open mall area outside the building. Schilling wants to set a similar tone in St. John, which will likely take a couple of years and a couple of acres to develop.

       “It’ll be beautiful,” he said. “Benches, shade trees, so you can stroll along at your leisure and comfortably sit there and meditate.”

      In the meantime, Father Maletta is happy to host the two statues at St. John the Evangelist.

      People tend to walk up to the church during their visit to the shrine, often stopping to visit a large statue of the Blessed Mother that stood for years along Wicker Avenue in front of farmland where the shrine now sits. St. John the Evangelist temporarily hosted the Our Lady of the New Millennium for a couple of years while the shrine prepared a space for it. The church also hosted some of the bronze statues for the shrine itself, placing them outside the former church at the corner of 93rd and Wicker avenues.

      Father Carlos Martinez, pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe in East Chicago, said he feels a profound joy knowing the Shrine of Christ’s Passion will have a special place to honor Our Lady of Guadalupe.

      “I currently serve in the Diocese of Gary as pastor of the only parish dedicated to her, but I can see the faith and love for her in all of the Hispanic community present in the different parishes throughout Northwest Indiana,” Father Martinez said. “And I also think there is a strong faith directed to her within the United States in general.”

      He said the manifestation of Our Lady in Mexico extends throughout the world.

      “Like a good mother, she approaches every person of any race or nation,” he said. “She is the sign of Jesus Christ and, like a good mother, she guides the whole Church to him.”

      Father Martinez said that because of her presence and intercession, the process of evangelization and the diocesan synod will produce even more and better fruits.

            “I think that the special place Our Lady of Guadalupe will have at the Shrine of Christ’s Passion will bring many pilgrims from the Diocese of Gary, and surely from other places," he said.


shrine second

Randy Csikos, project superintendent at the Shrine of Christ's Passion in St. John, stands near a bronze statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe that rests in a crate at the steps of St. John the Evangelist church in St. John. The statue and a companion statue of Juan Diego will sit on display outside the main doors of St. John the Evangelist, evenutally moving to the nearby shrine in about two years. (Vanessa Negrete photo)


shrine third

Workers guide a bronze statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe into place outside the main entrance of St. John the Evangelist in St. John. The statue, along with a statue of Juan Diego, will sit outside the church for about two years until a permanent location is ready at nearby Shrine of Christ's Passion in St. John. (Vanessa Negrete photo)

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