America's top family-friendly shrines

Why not visit some of America’s holy places this summer?

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By Marion Amberg

The tumbling waves of the oceans. The majestic Rocky Mountains. The golden plains of the Midwest. Wherever your family is headed this summer — across the country or closer to home — take the time to invigorate your faith with a visit to a Catholic shrine. Far from being just a place to pray, shrines are living “holy cards,” beautiful in spirit and space. They inspire, educate, and can even make us laugh. From giant sculptures to miniature cathedrals to simple gardens, shrines offer many unique ways to connect with God and strengthen the faith of kids and adults alike. Here are a few family-friendly shrines from across the country that you may enjoy:

Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche
Only heaven knows the number of babies born through the help of the intercession requested at the Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche y Buen Parto (Spanish for “Our Lady of the Milk and Happy Delivery”) in St. Augustine. It’s not uncommon for a child born of a mother who visited the shrine to return to the site and give thanks to Our Lady. The rustic chapel seats 30 and is part of Mission Nombre de Dios (“Name of God”), where the first parish Mass in the United States was celebrated on September 8, 1565 — the feast of the Nativity of Mary. “This is where Christianity in America was born,” says Eric P. Johnson, director of the 20-acre holy site.

While some families pray for their own miracles at the chapel, others find inspiration on the mission grounds. Teens enjoy standing under the 208-foot-tall Great Cross and watching the stainless steel structure seemingly move with the passing clouds. “It’s like the Spirit is moving over and around us,” said one pilgrim. Families will also enjoy visiting the 11-foot-tall bronze statue of Father López (his giant toes sticking out of his extra-large sandals make everyone giggle) and the walkway made from tablets of fossilized coral from the ocean bed. “I tell young people that when they’re standing on the tablets, they’re standing at the bottom of the sea — but still able to breathe!” Johnson says. Adding to the shrine’s allure are findings of ongoing archaeological excavations, including a moat from a 16th-century Spanish fort.

77 Ocean Avenue; open daily

While you're there, visit:
National Shrine of Mary, Queen of the Universe
In nearby Orlando, the National Shrine of Mary, Queen of the Universe is a popular day trip for families taking a break from Disney World. Symbolizing the waters of Baptism, “wave-like” granite flooring flows into the 2,000-seat church touted for its “Magnificat
windows.” The shrine’s many attractions include a museum of treasured Church art and a pilgrimage center that explains the Church’s role in world history.

8300 Vineland Ave.; open daily

Franciscan Holy Land / Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
To tour the Holy Land without leaving the United States, visit the Holy Land Franciscan Monastery in Washington, D.C. “Relive the life of Jesus,” beckons Franciscan Brother Thomas Courtney, chief tour guide, about the six shrines replicating those in Israel. “No passport needed!”

The monastery erected the shrines around the turn of the 20th century, when few people could afford to travel to Israel. Contemplate our Lord’s anguish in the replica Grotto of Gethsemane or meditate on his Crucifixion on Mount Calvary. The Christmas story comes to life for children at the Bethlehem Grotto, while, under the Memorial Church of the Holy Sepulchre, teens enjoy the maze-like passageways of the simulated Roman catacombs and martyr’s crypt. There are also replicas of the 4th-century Portiuncula Chapel near Assisi,
Italy, where St. Francis began the Franciscan Order in 1209, and of the grotto in Lourdes, France.

400 Quincy St. NE; daily tours

Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
Washington, D.C., may be the nation’s seat of civic power, but the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception (patroness of the United States)might be considered the spiritual heart of America. The basilica — built, in part, by funds from every U.S. diocese — radiates with the Blessed Mother’s love for all God’s children. Gracing the 70 chapels and oratories are ethnic depictions and titles of Our Lady. Built in Romanesque-Byzantine style, the basilica also includes seven domes featuring mosaics that tell the Bible story from Creation to the Last Judgment.

400 Michigan Ave. NE; daily tours

Grotto of the Redemption
A promise made is a promise fulfilled. That’s the legacy of Father Paul Dobberstein at the Grotto of the Redemption in West Bend. Falling gravely ill a month before his ordination in 1897, the seminarian vowed to erect a grotto to the Blessed Mother if he lived. When he regained his health, Father Dobberstein didn’t build just one grotto, but a composite of nine separate grottoes!

Valued at around $4 million and spanning the space of one city block, the Grotto of the Redemption depicts the Gospel story, set in stones from around the world. A green serpent crafted of Russian copper tempts Eve in the Grotto of Paradise Lost, while the Christmas Grotto features a 300- pound heart-shaped amethyst from Brazil.

Father Dobberstein labored 42 years on his creation, his hands often bleeding from the jagged rocks. “There isn’t any redemption without a little bit of blood,” he’d say. Mount Calvary — at 40 feet, the Grotto’s highest peak — dominates the landscape.

The Grotto museum showcases a worldwide collection of minerals, semiprecious stones, shells, and fossils. Families staying at the Grotto campground will enjoy seeing the shrine lighted at night.

Highway 15 in north-central Iowa; daily tours

While you're there, visit:
Trinity Heights, Queen of Peace
Reigning over Sioux City, Iowa, about 130 miles southwest of West Bend, is Trinity Heights, Queen of Peace. The shrine features holy scenes, including a life-size wood carving of the Last Supper, “Heaven’s Special People” (a memorial honoring physically and mentally challenged children and adults), and “The Way of the Saints.”

33rd and Floyd Blvd.; open daily

San Francisco de Asís Church
A journey to San Francisco de Asís Church at Rancho de Taos in northern New Mexico will leave the entire family talking about things mystical and divine. Popular with artists and photographers, this famous adobe church is also known for a luminous mystery — a 112-year-old painting titled “The Shadow of the Cross.”

In daylight, Henri Ault’s painting portrays a life-size, barefoot Jesus standing at the Sea of Galilee. In darkness, the background becomes luminescent and a shadow of a cross appears over his left shoulder. The sea and sky also seem to glow. It is not known what causes the background to be luminous; many pilgrims are moved by the mystical experience.

60 St. Francis Plaza, Ranchos de Taos; open daily

The Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes
About a half-hour south of Taos at Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo (formerly known as San Juan Pueblo) is another spiritual gem: the Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes. One-fifth the size of the famed Sainte Chapelle in Paris after which it is modeled, the 1889 stone chapel recreates, in its apse, the grotto at Lourdes, France.

Surrounded by roses, a statue of the Blessed Mother stands on a ledge of lava rock, while a kneeling St. Bernadette prays before her. Built into the “cave” is the chapel’s altar. Visitors describe it as “a little bit of Catholic France in the Southwest.” Restored in 2004, the “Sainte Chapelle of New Mexico” boasts 23-karat gold stars on its cobalt-blue ceiling and ornately carved ribs painted to match its “French mother.”

Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo is off Highway 285/84
for tours inquire at St. John the Baptist Church; open daily

National Sanctuary of Our Sorrowful Mother

In 1892, 9-year-old Ambrose Mayer promised God he would do something great for the Church if his mother survived a difficult childbirth. His mother and baby sister lived, and Ambrose became a Servite friar and in 1923 began the National Sanctuary of Our Sorrowful Mother in Portland.

The shrine is indeed something great. The 62-acre “Cathedral of the Great Outdoors” boasts Our Lady’s Grotto — a magnificent rock cave carved into the base of a 110- foot-tall cliff — and more than 100 statues and shrines gracing the flower-lined pathways.

Nothing captivates families, however, quite like the Peace Garden. Using nature to tell the story of redemption, a winding, shaded path leads into an open, lighted area, while a tiny brook — symbolizing the birth of Jesus — swells into a deeper, more tumultuous stream to signify the Crucifixion. Perhaps as families take in the Meditation Chapel’s panoramic view of the Cascade Mountains, parents and children alike will be inspired, each in their own way, to do their own great deeds for God.

NE 85th and Sandy Blvd.; open daily


A few more shrines to see
The Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs at Auriesville, New York, is the site of America’s earliest canonized martyrs (a Jesuit priest and two companions who were evangelizing the Mohawks) and the birthplace of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha.; 518-853-3033

Known as “Jerusalem in Miniature,” the 4-acre Ave Maria Grotto at Cullman, Alabama, boasts 125 miniature reproductions of famous churches and shrines crafted by Benedictine monk Joseph Zoettl.; 256-734-4110

One of the country’s newest shrines is the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe at La Crosse, Wisconsin. The hillside site includes a Spanish-styled church, a five-part oil paintingof the apparitions, and the Mother of Good Counsel Votive Candle Chapel aglow with nearly 600 candles.; 608-782-5440

Arising from red rocks in Sedona, Arizona, the Chapel of the Holy Cross is stunning for both its architecture and landscape. Families enjoy finding “praying nuns” and other characters in the rock formations.; 888-242-7359

The Shrine of St. Thérèse on a tiny island near Juneau, Alaska, harkens pilgrims to “the little way.” Erected in the 1930s, the shrine is known for its beautiful Rosary trail and labyrinth.; 907-780-6112

, visit
or consult Marian Shrines of the United States: A Pilgrim’s Travel Guide
by Theresa Santa Czarnopys and Thomas M. Santa, CSsR.

Freelance writer Marion Amberg

Marion Amberg is a freelance writer from Minneapolis, Minnesota, who writes frequently on topics of religious interest.