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Throwback Thursday: Shrine opens for worship as construction continues

Belleville is working to back a big development across Illinois 15 from the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows, but on June 14, 1962, the Shrine was just opening to its first group of pilgrims as workmen continued construction.

The News-Democrat’s photographers gave local readers a first look at the Shrine, which had been under construction for a few years and was still about two years from completion. Some of the old negatives show scaffolding, temporary power supplies and workers that were cropped out of the images printed in the paper.

One of the images shows the Shrine’s director, the Rev. Edwin Guild, posed by the massive sign that once drew the faithful off old Route 460, which is now Illinois 15. He took our photographer on a tour of the new facility, showing off the amphitheater and its altar with the new statue of Our Lady of the Snows. The 16-foot blue, white and gold statue was made of fibreglass and had only been installed two days earlier.

It was backed by a painting of the Northern Lights and created a silhouette when lit. The altar beneath it was black marble, with paintings that used platinum and gold backgrounds for wax and pigment paintings inspired by European cathedrals.

Soaring above it all was a tripodal “M,” for Mary. Three circles in the top portion represented the Holy Trinity.

The Lourdes Grotto had been open for a year at that point. The Shrine Restaurant was just going up.

So what does snow have to do with a woman from the Middle East? Our Lady of the Snows is a reference to the Basilica of Saint Mary Major in Rome.

The basilica was built on Esquiline Hill after a childless Roman couple asked for a sign of how they could dedicate their fortune to the Virgin Mary. They got the sign on Aug. 5, about A.D. 360, at the height of the Roman summer, when it snowed overnight on that hill.

Our Shrine, too, was built on a hill, or rather a river bluff, overlooking St. Louis and the Mississippi River. And we, too, have snow — but not yet on Aug. 5.

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