Catholic shrines are often relatively small, consisting of just a statue, for example.
As a result, Socha said, people often get confused when they arrive at the sprawling Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
They ask, where is the shrine?
The answer takes a moment to sink in.
"The whole thing is the shrine," Socha said. "There isn't any one focal point to it."
There are obvious highlights, however, including:
• The red-tile roofed Mother of Good Counsel Votive Chapel, which is the first stop on the trail connecting the visitor center and Shrine Church. The chapel has seven stained glass windows depicting various apparitions of the Virgin Mary.
It also contains 576 votive candles arranged in a pyramid. The number has no theological significance, but the shape recalls Aztec pyramids in place when the earliest Catholic conversions took place in Mexico.
• The Stations of the Cross and Rosary walks.Shortly before arriving at the Shrine Church, visitors can wander off the main path to a reflect on set of bronze sculptures depicting the final hours of Jesus' life. Also branching from the main path at this spot is the Rosary Walk, which includes a set of curved walls containing scenes from the life of Jesus.
• The Shrine Church. Perched atop of the path from the visitor center, the 16,380 square-foot building with a fieldstone facade and red-tile roof includes 10 shrines, 31 stained glass windows, bronze doors, and marble floors imported from Italy.
The church is capped with copper dome that is 42 feet in diameter and is decorated inside with stars in the same position they were in 1531, the year when Catholics believe the Virgin Mary appeared in front of a Mexican villager named Juan Diego.
Socha calls the church "a parish of pilgrims."
In other words, he said, daily Masses are intended for visitors to the pilgrimage site, not for local churchgoers.
The church, like the rest of the shrine complex, is approved by the Diocese of La Crosse. It operates separately from the diocese, however, and is not intended to compete with local parishes, a fact that is highlighted by its relatively inconvenient access, Socha said.
Masses at the Shrine Church will led by Franciscan friars who started living on the shrine property this summer. There were three friars living there last week and as many as six could eventually live at the shrine, Socha said.
The friars' under-construction living quarters will have a private chapel and a private passage into the Shrine Church next door. They will lead Masses at 11 a.m. Monday through Saturday and at 1 p.m. Sunday, a schedule that could change, Socha said.
Weddings allowed at the Shrine Church will be very few and far between, he added.
It might be just the starting point for the trail, but the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe visitor center has become an attraction of its own because of its restaurant, a popular local destination for weekday lunch and Sunday brunch.
For those who continue up the trails from the visitor center, sights along the way include bronze sculptures of St. Joseph the Workman and Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American to be declared a Blessed, which is a step below sainthood.
More devotional areas of this kind are possible in the future, Socha said.
In the meantime, the shrine complex continues to take shape. A flower-adorned shrine to the unborn is under construction and could be completed this fall, early plans have been developed for a catechetical center that could include a space for radio broadcasting, and a group of contemplative nuns could eventually move to the shrine property, Socha said.
When former Diocese of La Crosse Bishop Raymond L. Burke announced the shrine project in 1999, the cost was widely reported as $25 million, a figure Socha said he could not confirm. He would only say that the shrine was paid for completely by private donations, with no money from the diocese, adding that the project has been "financially blessed."
Those blessings will need to continue for the shrine, which is funded entirely by donations.
While the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico city is one of the most-visited Catholic pilgrimage sites in the world, the La Crosse shrine is intended as a destination for people who can't make it to the shrine in Mexico, Socha said.
The La Crosse shrine is the largest in the U.S. dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe, but by no means is it the largest Catholic shrine in the country.
There are shines with more land: Holy Hill in Hubertus, Wis., has more than four times as much land (435 acres), for example. The La Crosse shrine also pales in comparison to the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., whose seating capacity is 3,500 people, compared to the Shrine church's 450-person seating capacity.
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Once Jane Glomski of Stewartville visited the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe the first time, she knew she had to go back.
"It's such a wonderful thing to have for our area, to have a shrine of that magnitude, and the beauty of it," said Glomski, 56, who has visited the 103-acre pilgrimage site on the outskirts of La Crosse with family and on a one-day self-guided retreat.
With its red-tiled roofs and secluded, wooded property, the shrine complex recalls a different place and era. A half-mile trail winds up a hill that separates the visitor center from a copper-domed church, passing a chapel and other memorials along the way.
The setting is so peaceful and scenic that shrine spokesman Jack Socha makes a point of warning against the temptations it will surely bring. The shrine is not a place to take your dog for a walk, he stresses, and it's also not a place to jump out of your car, snap a picture, and leave.
"It is meant to be an all-day affair where you come here to spend time," Socha said.
It's also a place where each visit can be different, Glomski said, because there are so many different places to pause for prayer.
"It's just a very inspirational and spiritual place to unwind and reflect and meditate," she said. "I think people when they first go there, they are amazed at all the shrine has to offer."
The shrine draws visitors from around southeastern Minnesota, Socha said. Mayo Clinic patients and family often stop by the shrine either on the way to or returning from Rochester, he added.
With the glimmering Shrine Church opening to the public Thursday, Socha talks about history being made as the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe expands its appeal.
"We consider this not just an area shrine, but a shrine for the entire country," he said. Rochester Post Bulletin