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Visit to a Smalltown Catholic Shrine

View from the highway of the Ste. Anne shrine in St. Anne, Illinois. (Josh Thomas)

Trouble no man about his religion,
and let no man trouble you about yours.

Tecumseh, War Chief of the Iroquois Confederation

I live in a small town in northwest Indiana, 75 miles south of Chicago. This means that if residents need to buy anything beyond the basics of subsistence – groceries, auto parts, prescriptions or vodka – we have to drive at least 30 miles (Watseka has a Wal-Mart) or more likely 100 or more. Yesterday that turned out to be a good thing, because I had a unique experience; I finally stopped at “America’s first shrine to Ste. Anne.” It’s been there all along, I grew up 15 miles away, but I’d never seen it before.

I drove an hour to the computer repair shop in Kankakee and finally got my burned-out Macintosh back; they kept it a month and a half! And in fact they didn’t fix it, because that would have cost as much as a new iMac, so I only had them retrieve my data for $85. The loss was covered by insurance, so I’ll buy a new box this weekend. Both coming and going I passed through the town of St. Anne, Illinois, in St. Anne Township, obviously named for the church and shrine. On the return trip I passed through about 4:30 p.m. and decided to stop and see what I could. The entrance to the church is only a block off the highway, State Route 1 – which tells you all you need to know about the geography of state highways in the Midwest. Indiana’s S.R. 1 runs north and south next to the Ohio border; Illinois’ S.R. 1 runs north and south next to the Indiana line. These states were settled east to west, so the highways are numbered accordingly. My house is only five miles from Illinois, but here was this place I’d never been to – the first such shrine, after all. How could I understand my own stomping grounds if I didn’t know about the town that grew up around a Catholic church?

I noticed that the grounds were pretty extensive and open; it’s essentially a church-owned public park, with a picnic shelter and nice landscaping, with little statues and religious objects scattered among the trees and bushes. I parked and tried the front door; would it be locked in late afternoon? It wasn’t, so I went inside. The church is very nice for such a small town (population 1300). The gothic design is built of stone; I bet it seats 250-300 people. I learned they have a novena there every year leading up to the Feast of St. Anne on July 26. (The Episcopal Church celebrates Anne and her husband Joachim, the parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary, that same day.)

I wasn’t quite prepared, though, for what I saw inside.

The walls are kind of orangey-pink; the late afternoon sunlight coming through the stained glass windows emphasized the pink. I’ve never been in a pink church before. Is the color scheme intended to reinforce the femininity of the mother of all mothers? Maybe.

You pass under a balcony at the back of the church; there are pews up there, which may not get used except by pilgrims who gather for the annual novena. The balcony also holds an electronic organ, like a Hammond, but I don’t think it’s used regularly, because on the main floor, up front and to the right, there’s a choir area with a newer electronic keyboard. The choir sits in small upright chairs with wicker seats facing the keyboard player. Since they’re not in pews, each of these wicker chairs has a little wicker basket next to it with hymnals and worship materials. It occured to me a thief might have stolen the keyboard if he wanted.

There are three aisles, a center one and two on either side, with little half-pews next to the walls, which have large Stations of the Cross; I didn’t really look at the stations, but I did study all of the windows. Many were gifts of people with French surnames; this might help explain the local insistence on the distinction of “Ste.” vs. St., the way Americans would spell her title. The shrine was started by a French Canadian priest, Charles Chiniquy, about 1851 and rebuilt after a fire in 1879. How did he get there and why?

(Chiniquy himself is quite a story; a gifted, charismatic preacher and temperance crusader, egotistical, obsequious to superiors, fame-craving, divisive, sensational – in short, famous. He once was caught boinking his housekeeper in the rectory, which helps explain how he ended up in Illinois. He later left the Roman Church and campaigned against it, while also spinning fantastic conspiracy theories blaming the Jesuits for assassinating Lincoln. See his entry in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography here.)

This whole area (and much beyond, from Michigan to Arkansas) was first explored in 1673 by the French Jesuit priest Fr. Marquette, for whom the Milwaukee university is named, and a French Canadian adventurer, Louis Joliet, for whom the Chicago suburb is named. Chiniquy’s arrival in Illinois 180 years later is related to anti-French discrimination in British Canada and the subsequent depopulation of rural Quebec. French Canadians came south to Illinois looking for more freedom, but alas for Chiniquy, the Bishop of Chicago was an Irishman who insisted on running a tight ship.

Today the church looks well-maintained, which suggests to me that the shrine is supported by people who don’t live here as well as the local townspeople. The place is surely too costly for the town itself. The ceiling has strands of gold leaf to set it off, and while there is a little water damage visible in the front, which the parish itself can’t afford to take care of yet, the church has a prosperous look about it – especially compared to the tiny parish of St. Martin five miles down the road in Martinton (pop. 375), a small wood-frame building, very modest looking. Hmm, St. Martin of Tours? Another Frenchman. Maybe Fr. Chiniquy started that one too, and the village grew up around it just like St. Anne did.

The area between St. Anne and Kankakee also has many residents of Dutch ancestry; most of them Catholics, but some Reformed too. While the early French history is important to Indiana (think Vincennes and Fort Ouiatenon), that was a long time ago; I never knew there were French people so recent and so close to my hometown.

Then the surprises kept coming; two of them were particularly shocking to my Episcopalian eyes.

The sanctuary, or area around the altar, is elevated by five or six steps. It’s very old and elegant, with a bit of vaulting on the ceiling. The altar has been detached from the wall (no apse behind) in the modern way. The area is roomy and simple, which adds to the dignity of the decor. But the reredos on the wall behind the altar made my jaw drop.

It’s beautiful, carved, golden, expensive – but it’s not Jesus Christ in that statue. It’s Anne and her daughter Mary.

Apparently they’re the ones we’re supposed to worship here. Visually, that’s the message.

In fact I had to look around to find a crucifix anywhere, and I only saw two; one atop a small processional cross parked near the priest’s chair off to the side, and another small one in a niche at the left front of the nave, where again the main visual is St. Anne.

That area on the left also contains the aumbry or tabernacle, marked by a hanging red lamp. So I finally found where the Sacrament was, genuflected toward it, entered the first pew and was able to pray; that went well.

On the nave’s right front is another niche with a statue of grownup Mary. Nearby is a painting of Jesus pointing to his Sacred Heart.

Again, “trouble no man or woman about his or her religion.” I believe in that. I have many disputes with the Roman Church but not with Catholic people. I think the theology is skewed and the governance is a mess, but it’s a beautiful religion, and I was happy to be in this beautiful church.

But I didn’t even think it was legal, anywhere, to elevate a saint, even Jesus’s grandma, above the Christ himself. So I was shocked. Fortunately I didn’t let it bother me spiritually, I just let myself be charmed by the place.

When I was done with my prayers I explored a little more and returned to the back of the church. On the right, under the balcony and next to the narthex, is another beautiful statue of Anne and young Mary. This one I think is newer than the ones up front. (And I must say I love statues in Catholic churches; I wish Episcopalians had more of them.) There was a low table in front of it, perhaps a kind of altar if that area is used as an open chapel, and on the table was a laminated card marked “Prayers to Ste. Anne.”

Prayers to. Open about it; we’re praying to St. Anne.

There are any number of Catholics, priests and lay, who will tell you, “We don’t pray to saints.” But don’t believe it; many of them do. Some people may try to discourage it, but not at this shrine.

The content of the prayers on this card, Prayers to Ste. Anne, amounted to this: I pray to you, St. Anne, asking you to pray to your daughter Mary, that she may take my concerns to her Son Jesus and that with her intercession, all my desires will come true.

It’s kind of selfish, as if all you have to do to win the lottery or get your boyfriend back from that cheating huzzy is pray to St. Anne; but that’s what the card said.

It put me in mind of the Prayer Book phrase (Rite I, p. 330): Grant these our prayers, O Father, for Jesus Christ’s sake, our only Mediator and Advocate.

An Episcopalian would ask the priest at St. Anne’s, “Why not just pray to Jesus himself? What makes you think we need any other mediator? Do you think your prayers are stronger somehow if you pray to Anne, who prays to Mary, who prays to Jesus? Why would Jesus want or need a third-hand prayer?”

I mean, I don’t judge if that’s how they want to do it; but I’d rather have God’s attention directly.

So my visit to the shrine ended up being both beautiful and confirming the Protestant in me.

Mind you, I spend every day of my life writing and teaching about saints like Anne and Mary and the American Jonathan Daniels and everyone else who is on our calendar. But we don’t pray to these folks ever. They’re instructive and inspiring, but they’re not little gods and goddesses.

Later, as I thought about this and did some online research for this post, I came across a webpage that lists all the St. Anne shrines in the U.S. and Canada. If the information is accurate, most or all of them have “relics” of the saint’s body – including the one I went to in Illinois. (I didn’t see where it was.)

I personally find the veneration of dead body parts repulsive, though my best friend, a Lutheran, does not. We had that discussion a long time ago and I’ve forgotten his argument. He gave me a small crucifix once and showed me that the back came off if you unscrewed it; “you could store a little relic in there, maybe a tuft of hair or a fingernail.” Ugh.

Yes, I know it’s common to bury bishops and kings and other worthies in cathedral vaults, sometimes under the floor, sometimes above the floor. Sometimes churches are built, or have been, on the tomb of a saint. I’ve seen many of those and have no problems with them. But I will not participate in the public “showing” of St. Anne’s body parts, or anyone else’s.

Then it turns out, according to that website:

The Church of St. Anne de Beaupré in Quebec, Canada possesses a rare relic of the Saint; a fragment of the wrist bone of St. Anne, about two or three inches in length, with the skin and flesh still adhering to the bone and showing the joint near the thumb. When the precious relic arrived in New York from Rome on May 1, 1892 crowds of the faithful flocked to the church of St. Jean Baptiste, where the relic was temporarily deposited for the veneration of the faithful.

Saint Anne of New York So great was the enthusiasm of the faithful of New York in venerating the relic of St. Anne in 1892 (then in transport to the Shrine of St. Anne de Beaupré) it remained exposed for three weeks. Pope Leo XIII, who soon afterward presented this parish with a portion of the forearm of St. Anne, which has since been preserved and devoutly venerated in the church of St. Jean Baptiste.

I mean, how creepy. Here’s a pope carving up St. Anne’s body and giving out a forearm here and a finger there, like prizes.

(I can only imagine the tasteless trinkets sold next door: “I saw St. Anne’s moldy finger and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.”)

The only reason I can think of why the Catholic Church would permit such a practice is to encourage the development of cults devoted to the various saints. Indeed, the Church admits this.

And while “cult” is a heavy and pejorative word to most Americans, it’s freely used in Catholicism.

Why these bands of devotees? Is it easier somehow for people to make contact with Jesus if they have superhuman intermediaries, who “lived right here” or whose forearm is over there?

The Church apparently believes it is. So we’ve got popes sending two inches of finger to Colorado, half a forearm to Quebec, a lock of hair to Africa, and a couple of fingernails somewhere else.

I just find it gruesome, as well as bad theology.

Pour out your heart to God alone; the Holy Spirit, who lives inside your body, will respond directly.

The church in St. Anne, Illinois also has a small display of children’s crutches on the wall near the back mini-altar, with postcards that claim various “cripples” have been cured here. All of the shrines with relics make such claims – and no one can say for sure they didn’t happen, no matter how skeptical or believing you might be. The cures, too, add to the cult, so “you really should go at least once, and if you do, you’ll get time off from purgatory.” Catholics have built a whole spiritual economy on these notions. I suppose it is efficacious in developing some kind of faith in some people, even if I happen to think (and nearly all non-Catholics do) it’s kinda twisted, and none of it’s Biblical.

I believe miracles do happen, but I don’t think you have to drive to an Illinois cornfield to get one. God doesn’t withhold on us like that; Jesus went about dispersing miracles freely.

But the Catholic emphasis on the cult of the saints seems to me predicated on the idea that Jesus is remote and too difficult for ordinary people to understand. Thus we need these little go-betweens.

They’re still promoting indulgences, too – for sale in some places, and “all for a good cause.”

If Protestants as a category went off the deep end in rejecting Catholic practices and Catholic theology – and I believe yes, as a category they did – it isn’t difficult to understand why.

The rise of the Protest movement coincided with the invention of the printing press and the translation of the Bible into common, everyday languages. From those events came the rise in preaching as the principal Sunday activity, as well as hymn singing and Bible study.

One famous Bible translator said, Give me an ignorant peasant and a Bible in his own language, and soon he’ll know more about Christ than all the priests there ever were.

I’m an Episcopalian; we believe in Mass, preaching and Bible study in our own language.

The shrine of Ste. Anne accidentally strengthened me in the faith I’ve received in Common Prayer and Sacraments. And for that I’m grateful.

Besides, that private/public park in Illinois is a gift to the whole town. Whatever Fr. Chiniquy’s sins, excesses or even apostasy, he left behind some good.++