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Throwback Thursday: Looking at what powers the Way of Lights

A 2014 file photo shows cars passing a light display in the Way of Lights at the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows.
A 2014 file photo shows cars passing a light display in the Way of Lights at the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows. News-Democrat

The power company can thank Elroy Rule for its big Christmas bonus: He was the idea man behind the Way of Lights.

This Throwback Thursday looks at what keeps the lights on for the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows and furthers the work of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate among the world’s rural poor. On Nov. 23, 1970, we featured a photo of the brand-new light display that was to open Dec. 1, 1970.

In 1970 Rule was the business manager at the Shrine in Belleville. He wanted to keep the grounds crews working through the winter, so he came up with a way — of lights.

The crew strung 77,000 lights in the trees that first year using an old Ford tractor with a ladder bolted to the bucket. Lots of extension cords ran from the buildings to power the half-mile display leading to a nativity scene.

Now they string well more than 1 million lights between Oct. 1 and Thanksgiving each year along a 1.5 mile route winding through the Shrine. They’ve upped their game with the growth, using an underground electrical system and bucket lifts.

The annual display tells the Christmas story of Jesus, Mary and Joseph and the journey to Bethlehem. At one point they added live animals to the attractions, including donkeys and camels. In the early years the camels would escape and the grounds crew would round them up.

The display boosts the Shrine restaurant, gift shop and hotel. And when the cars are all finished crawling through the display, they hold a 5K run through the lights. That event is Jan. 3 this year.

To see more photos, the newspaper from Nov. 23, 1970, and past episodes of Throwback Thursday, visit us at bnd.com/tbt.

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