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Indiana town at odds over Virgin Mary statues

Two Virgin Mary statues – a weather-beaten marble Mary and a newer one made out of metal – are caught in a tense drama in the little town of St. John, Indiana.

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Helen Rickenbrode of Cedar Lake, Indiana remembers stopping to pray at the Marian Wayside Shrine every time her family passed through town.

Helen Rickenbrode of Cedar Lake, Indiana remembers stopping to pray at the Marian Wayside Shrine every time her family passed through town.

WBEZ/Michael Puente

Catholics who attended Mass on Sunday, likely said a Hail Mary or two in honor of the mother of Jesus Christ. In fact, there are statues dedicated to the Virgin Mary all over Greater Chicago. Some are old and some are new, and two of them – a weather-beaten marble Mary and a newer one made out of metal – are caught in a tense drama in the little town of St. John, Indiana.

“When we used to come down this way, there was nothing. Wide open spaces. And, we would always – even with the family – we would stop,” Rickenbrode told WBEZ this week.

Rickenbrode still remembers driving through this patch of Northwest Indiana, about an hour south of Chicago, back in the 1960s.

She would stop and marvel at a large cream-colored Virgin Mary statue just off U.S. 41.

The Italian marble statue was part of the Marian Wayside Shrine. Every time her family passed it they would stop to pray.

“She’s just beautiful. She has a beautiful face,” the 72-year-old Rickenbrode said. “You can tell she was put together with love. Even though we’re on a busy street, it’s just a comforting feeling.”

But the nearly 60-year-old Virgin Mary statue won’t be comforting visitors for much longer.

At least not at this location.

“It’s not right. It’s part of St. John. It’s part of Northern Indiana. And where they plan on putting her, no one is going to see her again,” Rickenbrode said.

Rev. Sammie Maletta, pastor of St. John the Evangelist Church in St. John, says visitors only have to travel a few hundred yards to see the statue in the future.

“She’s not been moved to another state, she’s not been moved to another town,” Maletta said. “She’s only being moved a few hundred yards to a new location which is accessible all the time.

The new location is near the front of his church, just west of where the statue is now.

Maletta sits on the board of the non-profit Shrine of Christ’s Passion, an interactive life-like depiction of Jesus’ crucifixion, which is adjacent to the Marian Wayside Shrine. The board controls the roadside shrine.

Maletta says after praying about it for a long time, the board recently decided to move the statue to make way for another Virgin Mary.

It’s called Our Lady of the New Millennium. This Madonna is three stories high, 100 percent stainless steel and it even has its own Facebook page.

Built in Chicago thirteen years ago, it recently traveled around the region as a tourist attraction.

Eventually it found a home in St. John the Evangelist’s parking lot two years ago – and that created a bit of a dilemma.

“Because of the notoriety and fame of this statute, that would diminish the other statue,” Maletta said. “Having the two symbols right next to each other, it was a like a dueling, we didn’t think that was the best way to honor the blessed virgin.

So the old modest Mary is getting a nice display in front of the church, and the shiny new Millennium Mary will take its place down on Route 41.

“Approximately 250,000 people visit the shrine. Again, because of the size and notoriety of the statue and the size, more people will actually come. The Marian Wayside Shrine is still there but it just has a different statue,” Maletta said.

The Marian Wayside Shrine has stood on U.S. 41 in St. John, Indiana for nearly 60 years. But this statue of the Virgin Mary will be moved to a new location and replaced by a three-story Virgin Mary statue called Our Lady of the New Millennium. (WBEZ/Michael Puente)

But Helen Rickenbrode doesn’t see it that way.

“I live in the area, I went to see her (the Millenium Mary) once. I just never went back to see her so what would be the draw?,” Rickenbrode said. “I’m religious and I don’t believe there’s any ugly religious figures out there but she just isn’t the same. There’s no comparison.”

Rickenbrode and hundreds of others protested the move by signing an online petition organized by Brad Wachter.

Wachter’s grandfather donated the land and paid to have the statue built back in the 1950s.

“It was specifically designed as a wayside shrine and meant for not just the the people locally to enjoy but those who happen upon it or pass by,” Wachter said. “It was really meant to be enjoyed by as many people as possible and not just the members of one parish.”

Wachter’s cousin, Frank Schilling, also sits on the shrine’s board and had a say in the decision to move the statues.

Schilling could not be reached for comment, but he told WBEZ two years ago when the Statue of the New Millennium arrived that there is not a competition between the statues, “just one great lady.”

Rev. Maletta says the original intent of the Marian Shrine is not changing with the inclusion of the new Millennium Mary statue.

“We’re definitely maintaining the original intent. In fact, we have enhanced the original intent so that Mary is honored,” Maletta said.

“I don’t pretend to know the best place to put the Millennium Mary,” Wachter counters. “But frankly I feel sorry for the family that had her built. I wouldn’t think that I would want that for something I was involved with to take the special place of another,” Wachter said.

Rev. Maletta says Wachter’s petition won’t work to change the board’s decision.

“God Bless Brad Wachter. I’m sure his heart is in the right place but it’s not that big of a deal and it’s not going to have any impact on what we do,” Maletta said.

Our Lady of the New Millennium is expected to be in her new spot by summer’s end.

Michael Puente is WBEZ’s Northwest Indiana reporter. Follow him on Twitter @MikePuenteNews.

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