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National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows
Belleville, IL

Design Architect: Richard Cummings
Project Architect: Maguolo & Quick
Landscape Architect: Emmet Layton
Date: 1961

It is easily the most Space Age-fabulous building in the region. Seated at the bottom of a hill that forms a natural ampitheater, the main shrine of Our Lady of the Snows is a complex arrangement of curved forms and overlapping, intertwined spaces, a sort of High Googie architectural style.

The Shrine began in 1943 as a small corner  devotional in a chapel at the nearby St. Henry's monastary, home of the Oblate Fathers; it was begun by Father Paul Schulte, who had returned from missionary work in Alaska. Devotions to Mary under the title Our Lady of Snows date back to the early Christian era of Rome. Pilgramage to the Belleville shrine soon grew to the point that a dedicated building was needed; that too was soon outgrown. 80 acres of land were purchased in 1958, and a building campaign began which would span the 1960s and beyond, yielding an inn, a retirement home, a church, and numerous devotional sites and grottos around the grounds.

But the star attraction is the Main Shrine Building, an open-air shrine to Mary. It was designed by Richard Cummings, a 1952 Wash U graduate who designed the structure while working at the St. Louis firm of Maguolo & Quick - presumably under the direction of  principal George J. Maguolo, who had already worked on the New Cathedral, designing the 1939 rectory and the belated sacristy, and overseeing installation of the mosaics during Carinal Ritter's tenure. Maguolo was a World War I vet who served in France, studied architecture at Wash U, and practiced in New York, Detroit and finally St. Louis, where he passed away in 1975. Maguolo and Quick worked on many Modernist Catholic structures in the post-World War II era, scattered across the Midwest.

(A third name associated with the Shrine is that of Cincinnati architect John William Becker, who appears in the listings of the Ravinia Mosaic Company records at Saint Louis University; I have not been able to find more info on his role at Our Lady of the Snows. Becker lived from 1902 to 1974, practiced primarily with the firm Garriott & Becker, retired in 1963, and may be best known as the husband of Marion Rombauer Becker - primary author of The Joy of Cooking. John Becker edited it for 25 years alongside his architectural work.)

The Main Shrine faces a circle of fixed seating, with an ampitheater built into the hill behind that can accomdate thousands during large events. It was the largest open-air shrine in the world when it opened.

The Main Shrine is elaborately decorated with gold tile, curvacious shapes and a central statue of Mary that is illuminated from above. Capping it off is a surprisingly literal curvacious form, a stylized letter M for the shrine's namesake saint.

Behind the ampitheater stands the Millenium Spire, an 85 foot high totem celebrating the 2000 AD Jubilee.

Around the side, curved concrete paths are accented by stylized metal railings with a late-era Frank Lloyd Wright bent to their design. Two pairs of massive metal doors bear sculpture designed by artist Rodney Winfield, who also designed some elements of the Main Shrine. Winfield's work with Emil Frei stained glass company appears in churches throughout the region.

Inside, the Mary Chapel is a space that almost defies comprehension. The chapel is a half-circle shaped room with the center carved out. A full-height cylinder in the middle is the inside face of Mary's sheltering space on the outside. On either side of the cylinder, two walls of glass separate inside from outside and provide natural lighting from above. The paintings are of the Northern Lights, inspired by Father Schulte's journeys and based on the original painting that began the Shrine.

Lining the outside of the lower level are the Rosary Courts.

Directly below the Mary Chapel is the Christ the King chapel, a darker, lower and wider space. The entrance is marked by a wall of random tiled blue stained glass.

In the back - or the front, depending on how you first approach the building - two magnificent angels greet visitors. They bear the hallmarks of the Emil Frei studio styles, and indeed, Frei artist Rodney Winfield designed the mosaics and, presumably, the Ave Maria angels as well.

As mentioned above, the ground are dotted with a variety of other structures. Shown here are the Church, the hotel, the Millenium Spire, and one of the grottos.

  • Rome of the West pays a visit, with fine photos of the mosaic art
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