Monday, August 29, 2011

Holy Family Shrine

©2011 Steven P. Thelen.
This year, for his forty-seventh birthday, my friend Steve was taken by his lovely wife, Bridgette, to a little-known yet remarkable spot just outside Omaha.

If you're travelling along Interstate 80, then take Exit 432 (Gretna), head south along State Highway 31, then right on Pflug Road until you're almost back at the interstate again. On the north side of Pflug, to your right, you'll find Holy Family Shrine, one of the hidden gems of the Cornhusker State. (Here's a link to ACME Mapper.)

As the visitors continue north, they experience the chapel facade. As high as forty-nine feet, arching members of wood, frame the stone entry structure below and within the chapel structure. The arching wood members inlaid in the facade articulate waves of grain, symbolic of the grain of the Eucharist, the bread of life, and the essence of the Catholic faith. As the visitors enter the chapel, so does the water, flowing through the church like the Holy Spirit. Two streams of water flank the entry and flow along the sides of the pews. The waters cut a stream in the limestone that forms the floor and foundation of the chapel. Set on top of this mass of limestone are wooden structural members that arch across the chapel like waves of grain. The twelve structural members represent the apostles.  At the front of the chapel, the image of the Holy Family is beautifully etched into a single pane of glass sixteen feet tall.
©2011 Steven P. Thelen.
With an open view of the prairie and the Platte valley beyond, the image of the Holy Family appears like spirits in the heaven. The elevated altar area sits in front of the Holy Family image. An elevated slab of limestone at the altar area appears to float above a pool of water. This pool is collecting the flowing streams on either side of the pews as they flow through the chapel.
Steve's description:

There is a visitor’s center built into the side of the hill like a bunker, which you can’t see at all from the highway, and there are trails and benches throughout the grounds. The chapel/church/shrine itself is very cool, with a hollow floor that has openings in various places where you can see water running beneath your feet. The stream goes from a fountain in the visitors center all the way out to the altar.  Here is a link to some pictures I took. I haven’t edited out the bad ones or processed the images in any way, so they are pretty raw, and in some cases repetitive. I did not take any photos inside the shrine out of respect for the people there who were praying and/or just chilling out. We did both; it’s a very peaceful space.
©Steven P. Thelen.
It’s worth a stop if you are going by on a trip up here. The origins of the shrine are somewhat mysterious, to me anyway, even though there is a whole story of how it came about in the visitor’s center. The mysterious part is the lack of names. This place obviously cost a bundle to construct, and can’t be cheap to maintain. A generous benefactor is alluded to, but never identified. More credit to whoever it is for not demanding that something be named after them, unlike the Scotts and Lieds and other well-heeled Omahans who are generous with grants and donations but expect naming rights in return. Buying a legacy, I suppose.
 Of course, "buying a legacy" has led to some of the greatest architecture in Western history, though I'll cheerfully concede a difference between buying the name for X% of the building cost and fronting the whole amount. Still, thank God the people involved thought it more important to provide the chapel than get themselves a religious "attaboy".

Mass is celebrated there every Saturday at 10:00 am except for Holy Saturday (so, as Steve points out, it won't fulfill your Sunday obligation). In the future, the unknown benefactors would like to add an outside stations of the cross, an interactive rosary path and a retreat/retirement center for priests. They also plan to add an outdoor shelter/ampitheater for more ecumenical events.

Actually, having been to Mahoney State Park several times, I can think of nowhere more relaxing and easy on the eyes to sit, pray and reflect on the awesome majesty of God than while looking across the Platte River valley during a golden autumn sunset. If you're on your way to, from or through Omaha, stop by, stay a few minutes and let the vista sweep you away.