There is a hill overlooking Lewis & Clark Lake in southeastern South Dakota that gives a panoramic view of the lake and the surrounding area. It is similar in form to numerous other bluffs that line the Missouri River on its progress through South Dakota, Nebraska and Iowa.
Eagles soar in the Lakeland sky above, while prairie grasses stir in the seldom quiet wind on its top. But this hill is unique among its kind; for on its crest three giant crosses stand as sentinel reminders of the life and death of Jesus Christ.
Down the slope of the hill, a bell tower, statues, shrinettes, the Way of the Cross, the Living Waters, the Rosary way and St. Joseph’s Chapel peek out among the trees and shrubbery. Here is found the House of Mary Shrine.
An Edifice to God
The Shrine began when a young Catholic couple bought a piece of property bordering the park on Lewis and Clark Lake in 1957. They prayed to Mary that they might be shown how to use the large parcel of land. It was customary on a lake used primarily for recreational purposes to sub-divide the land into plots for sale. Pleased with their purchase, the couple took a chaplain from Mount Marty College in Yankton on a tour of the rugged terrain, pointing out its accessibility to the city of Yankton and to vacationers in the park below. After the tour, the priest advised not to sell all of the land for home sites. He insisted that they save some of it for “an edifice to God.” The seed was planted and it would grow.
About that time, a former resident of Utica, SD, who had attained national recognition, was looking for an appropriate retreat for Carmelite Monks. Through mediation of a local doctor and a priest, the man met with the owners and a plan evolved for a “Chapel on the Hill.”
Wasting no time, he hired an architect to design a circular building to crown a steep round hill that afforded a magnificent view of the lake and surrounding area. However, just as the blueprints were completed, the aging businessman suffered a stroke and was forced to abandon his plan.
But, in the minds of a small group of believers, the dream of an edifice to God lingered. The group, called the Rosary Makers, met once a month in the cottage on the property (now the House of Mary). During this time, devotion to the rosary underwent severe testing within the Church. The Rosary Makers met to proclaim their faith in the rosary by making rosaries for distribution throughout the world.
As they strung their decades of beads and prayed, the members became possessed with the idea of a replacement plan for the ill-fated “Chapel on the Hill.” Being faithful to Our Mother, their thoughts turned in the direction of a shrine to honor not only God, but his Blessed Mother also.
A committee approached Bishop Lambert Hoch DD, Bishop of Sioux Falls, SD, in 1970 to tell him of the plan. The Bishop granted them permission and offered his approval.
In the meantime, “the people” were assured by a Benedictine monk that a shrine was a good idea. “It will never be easy,” he said, “but those of you who work on the shrine will be blessed and the area will be blessed.”
“You will be working with all kinds of people,” he continued. “You will be surprised by the people God will send you to develop your idea.” And the people came. Fr. Riedelsheimer, the first spiritual director, started them praying the rosary on Sundays. May Crowning was started in May 1971, by Bishop Lambert Hoch, DD. Rosary Rally and Feast of the Holy Innocents were originated by the Right to Life group. First Saturday masses of the Blessed Virgin Mary were begun by Fr. Aver of Nebraska. The Rosary Makers prayed in the House of Mary from the beginning and it continues today. Catholics and Protestants, Artists and artisans, Clergy and laymen, women and children. They cleared brush, made paths, cut dead trees, and planted new ones. They hauled rocks, mixed cement and dug out and built up. They sculpted and painted. They built a “House” unto the Lord.
Today The Shrine continues to be a refuge to thousands who stop to pray and meditate. To leave a petition, and to renew their faith in God. They come from all states and many countries. God touches many in a special way, and they return again to “get in touch” with their Creator, in the midst of nature. A bird can be heard, and the deer, rabbits, and squirrels linger to attest to God’s wonderful plan.
THE GIFT ON THE HILL
Magazine Article Summer 2007
Driving west of Yankton, SD, along Lewis & Clark Lake on Hwy. 52, a driver’s eye is caught by the three huge crosses perched high on the hilltop to the north. An unlikely sight, perhaps, but one that has surely provided many travelers a reminder, a bit of comfort, along their busy way. But those who stop to investigate will encounter the humble beauty around, below, and leading up to those crosses - the quiet gifts offered by the House of Mary Shrine.
The Shrine’s history is, in itself, compelling. Its story unfolded despite several financial setbacks; it was faith that nurtured the Shrine’s growth, and it is faith today that assures its continued presence.
A People Thing
Ed and Jean English had been praying to Mary for years that they might be shown where God wanted them. When they moved in 1957 to the Lewis & Clark lake area just west of Yankton, they wished to devote part of their 640-acre back yard for “an edifice to God.” Their openness and humility allowed them to receive the ideas of many, including the priests who gave them guidance along the way. What began as a vision for a “chapel on the hill” soon evolved into something more, and those setbacks mysteriously gave way to progress. “There were times of great discouragement,” recounts Jean English, but the cause had become “a people thing.” Taking no credit herself, she constantly speaks of the many stories of individuals who happened upon the place, took an interest, and offered to help serve as a reminder of the words of a visiting monk, ‘The area will be blessed, (but) it will never be easy. You will be surprised by the people God will send you.’
Love in Action
It began in the summer of 1971 when 12 wooden crosses were carried up along the incline, each by their donor, representing the Stations of the Cross. The Stations, depicting Christ’s suffering and death, wind up the path cutting through wild plum and sumac. Shortly thereafter, the three large crosses at the summit were erected and represent the outward symbol of the Shrine as it is known today. English says, “It starts with the three crosses. They are very visible…they are such a sign.”
Two outdoor walking rosaries were added as a dedication to Mary and devotion to the praying of the Rosary. Statues were donated by various local sculptors, a meditation area was created, and finally, a group of unskilled but determined carpenters crafted the Chapel of St. Joseph.
Through carving, planting, clearing, and building, “the people” who came to the Shrine showed their strong desire to give to it. “One thing begot another…(it has been) an act of faith…blind faith many times…we weren’t totally aware of what we were doing,” English remembers.
A significant part of its beauty today is in its evolution, which is told through the hundreds of donor names on statues, stairs, window, and bricks. “It’s a real work of love,” says English. “We feel it is developing according to God’s will and plan and that we are just instruments.
Mr. And Mrs. English deeded the Shrine and its 45 acres to the Catholic Diocese of Sioux Falls in 1986. Holding fast to tradition, the Rosary is held every first Saturday of each month followed by Mass.The May Crowning of Mary and Easter sunrise service have been held annually for over 30 years.
Jean Weller, current President of the Shrine’s Board of Directors, explains, “People come here when they have troubles, “ which is no surprise. The peace of The Shrine is so unique, and one is struck by a sense understanding and gratitude all at once.
Even now, the board is “open to how it will continue to grow,” says Weller. They are dependent on volunteers to help maintain the flowerbeds and landscape, and trust remains their guiding force. She explains that people still come and “fall in love” with The Shrine and want to care for it. In its imperfection, people are drawn to preserve and nurture it. Weller adds, “If it was perfect, we wouldn’t have the volunteers that we do.” The Shrine invites us to pray, to receive, and adore our Christ in the beauty of the common made rare.
Our Blessed Mother
And so, the three huge crosses at the top of the hill, in their glorious prominence, state the treasure surrounding them. Shrines all over the world began small and have grown, each unique in their expression of devotion. The House of Mary Shrine, in its rustic setting, is a testimony to the persevering faith of the people of this region and draws searchers from all denominations. While its inherent holiness beckons reverence, its simple sweetness allows the curious visitor to roam and children to run.
The rugged terrain speaks to our humanness, its ascending climb to our brokenness. Love is found in the ordinary, the perfect in the imperfect. This particular shrine, a jewel hidden in nature, shows respect for life and land and offers rest to the weary. Mary’s quiet, humble obedience is in the dirt of the path, and the birds sing of her quiet “yes” that saved the world. It is no wonder that we are drawn to The Shrine in our struggles; we long for the refuge of her protective arms, and her words are whispered through the trees, ‘know my Son, know His suffering, and know that in the toil up the hill, He is with you.’
And isn’t that just like a mother? Her gentle instruction that brings real peace…her understanding of our vulnerability, and her lessons that there is refuge in the truth…her silent grasp of our hand, leading us on the Way.
For more information on the House of Mary Shrine,
contact Jean Weller at: firstname.lastname@example.org or (605)668-9040.