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Jerry Davich: Can supporters save their ‘Lady’ from the march of progress?

Brad Wachter other protesters voice their cause Sunday morning churchgoers outside gates St. John Evangelist Church St. John. Collecting more

Brad Wachter and other protesters voice their cause to Sunday morning churchgoers outside the gates of St. John the Evangelist Church in St. John. Collecting more than 1,600 petition supporters, the group is protesting the relocation of the Marian Wayside Shrine, Òthe Great Lady,Ó a Northwest Indiana spiritual landmark of 60 years on U.S. 41, near the church. | Jerry Davich~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: July 12, 2013 6:23AM



A handful of peaceful protesters stood outside the gates of St. John the Evangelist Church in St. John on Sunday morning.

They held signs stating, “Our Lady is for Everyone” and “www.saveourlady.com — 1,600 Supporters,” near the gaze of a towering statue in the background. It’s called “Our Lady of the New Millennium,” a stainless steel Virgin Mary that’s been in the church’s parking lot for two years now.

But soon that 33-feet-high statue will be moved to replace an existing Blessed Mother statue on U.S. 41, just a mile or so away to the east. That marble statue, the Marian Wayside Shrine, has become a spiritual icon in Northwest Indiana since its installation in 1954.

“It was designed as a wayside shrine to reach the locals and travelers alike. But now its days are numbered there,” said protester Brad Wachter, of Aurora, Ill., who is leading the crusade to keep the statue where it’s been for nearly 60 years.

Wachter’s grandfather, Frank Wachter, commissioned the statue in Italy and erected it on an acre of land on the family farm, which was later donated to the Catholic Diocese of Gary. Maybe you’ve passed it on U.S. 41 or prayed at it through the years?

“We’re just trying to protect the original statue, the Great Lady, and keep it where it’s been for 60 years,” Brad Wachter told an older couple that stopped its car on the way into the church parking lot.

“We think the new statue is a wonderful thing, but it shouldn’t replace the original,” he told me during the protest, noting that his 83-year-old father, Ray Wachter, who lives next to the church, is in poor health and asked him to lead the opposition. “A wrong is about to take place and I am not giving up until the statue is taken away by a crane.”

Through the decades, visitors have spread ashes at the hallowed site on U.S. 41, uttered countless prayers at the Great Lady’s feet, and even exchanged wedding vows there. Several “attraction” signs are posted along Interstate 65, U.S. 231, and other region roadways for out-of-state believers.

“It’s a sacred place,” Wachter said as church bells echoed in the background. “Who would’ve thought that the church would allow this to happen?”

In 2003, the Catholic Diocese of Gary transferred ownership of the site and the Marian Wayside Shrine to a private not-for-profit organization called the Marian Wayside Shrine Foundation. It operates The Shrine of Christ’s Passion, an interactive depiction of Jesus’ crucifixion featuring bronze statues and stations with push-button recordings by Bill Kurtis.

The foundation is directed by local businessman (and Wachter’s cousin) Frank Schilling, and the Rev. Sammie Maletta, pastor of St. John the Evangelist Church, is on its board.

“Mr. Wachter’s grandfather had the marble statue built to honor the Virgin Mary, not to draw attention to himself or his family,” Maletta told me Monday afternoon. “You would think he would approve of this move.”

Two years of “prayer and creative thinking” went into this decision, he noted, considering the condition that came with the donation of the newer steel statue — that it be housed at the Shrine on U.S. 41.

“I’m thrilled to have the marble statue moved to our church in the next week or so,” he said. “The church was built in order to face it.”

‘Small town politics’?

After the new statue gets moved to the U.S. 41 site — sometime this summer — the original statue will already be installed at the church. Today, the two statues could see each other over the treetops between the church and U.S. 41 if they faced each other.

“If the original is moved to this church, it will be taken away from the many and only allowed to be seen by the few,” said Wachter, who’s been leading this protest and petition drive for two weeks.

More than 1,600 signatures have been collected so far, including dozens of comments from believers at the group’s website, www.SaveOurLady.com, and Facebook page, www.Facebook.com/SaveOurLady.

“Please keep our Blessed Mother Mary in her historic place,” one says.

“Please keep Mary where she was first intended to be forever,” writes another.

“Change is not always for the better. There are too many places where a new statue would be appreciated and where none stand as of now. If it isn’t broken, leave it alone.”

You get the idea.

“I’ve been coming here since I was a child, and I can’t believe they are moving her,” said Linda Hart, a 52-year-old Michigan resident who took her routine detour from I-65 on the way to Indianapolis last week.

I bumped into Hart during my first-time visit to the shrine, which has attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors.

Maletta said the protest will not change the church’s and organization’s plans.

“People are free to express their opinion, but some simply don’t like change of any kind.”

The new statue, built more than a decade ago, has recently toured Catholic parishes across the Midwest. It’s world renowned, Maletta noted.

Wachter doesn’t see it that way: “There seems to be two sides — those who oppose vocally and those who oppose privately but are afraid to speak, Father Maletta has been denouncing our opposition both from the altar and in private meetings. His congregation is intimidated by him.”

“I’ve also heard from local business owners and city employees who are afraid to oppose anything connected with Frank Schilling given his power and influence in the town of St. John,” he alleged. (Schilling did not reply with comment for this column.)

“What started out to be a campaign to save a 60-year-old shrine that holds a special place in the hearts of many has become a sad story of small town politics and power,” Wachter said.

I don’t know about those allegations, but I do know this. Change is inevitable, even for religious icons that date back decades, or centuries for that matter. Who would have thought that the U.S. 41 site would now house a digital billboard, gift shop and visitors center? Probably not Wachter’s grandfather back in 1954.

“In 20 or 50 years,” Maletta said, “people will probably only remember the steel statue at that site.”

Wachter’s ancestors, along with other opponents of the looming statue-switcheroo, are now facing the inevitable march of “progress.” And all they’re left with are the same timeless promises offered in the compassionate eyes of both statues — faith, hope and forgiveness.

Connect with Jerry via email, at jdavich@post-trib.com, voice mail, at 713-7237, or Facebook, Twitter, and his blog, at jerrydavich.wordpress.com.



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