A new chapter in the life of the Roman Catholic church in the Coulee Region begins today, the first day the Shrine Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe is open to the public.
Nine years after Archbishop Raymond Burke, former bishop of the La Crosse Diocese, first announced plans for the shrine, he dedicated the church at a Mass on Thursday that lasted more than three hours.
Now, with the centerpiece of the shrine complex complete, the success of the shrine lies largely in how the public, locally and around the world, receives the site Burke calls a place of pilgrimage.
"What happens here today with the dedication of this church is the reason for everything else that's happened this week," Burke said in a Thursday morning interview, referring to a week of events that began Monday and will last through Sunday.
To see photo galleries, videos, a timeline and an interactive tour of the shrine, click here.
On Wednesday, Burke had invited a gathering of people at the shrine to pray the shrine stays true to its mission, and warned them that the best in humans and the church is subject to attack from the "forces of evil."
Hundreds of people gathered Thursday morning at the shrine's Pilgrim Center, awaiting a procession up the half-mile meditation trail that leads to the Shrine Church.
At 12:35 p.m., altar boys dressed in blue, knights and ladies of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem - the women in black, the men in white - about 100 priests and 20 bishops and archbishops led the 20-minute procession to the church plaza.
After Mike Swinghamer, project architect for the shrine and co-owner of River Architects, handed over the design plans to Burke, Burke handed the key to the church to the first rector, who opened the doors.
About 450 people filled the church for the dedication Mass, with hundreds more gathered in the basement and around the Shrine grounds, listening to the Mass over loudspeakers and watching on television.
In his sermon, Burke described the church as a place of pilgrimage and told the story of St. Juan Diego's visions of Our Lady of Guadalupe in 1531 in Mexico.
"The mother of God desired that a chapel be built, to which she would invite her children to come on pilgrimage," he said.
But not all see the shrine the way most who gathered on Thursday do.
Corinne Dempsey, an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, said that for a church leader like Burke to initiate the building of a shrine of pilgrimage is backwards.
Such shrines come from the people, she said, not authorities.
"Pilgrimage sites do not start from the top down, but from the bottom up," said Dempsey, who has taught a course on popular Catholicism and studied pilgrimages.
Other sites of pilgrimage, like the site where Our Lady of Fatima is said to have appeared in Portugal, grew from a groundswell of popular interest, and the official church later becomes aware of it, Dempsey said.
"Pilgrimage shrines historically have been places that began based on miracles that happen to people, not to popes," she said. "I don't know how well central Wisconsin is set up for that kind of thing either. These kinds of pilgrimage sites are not typically a mainstream American phenomenon."
Many of those gathered for the dedication Mass see things differently.
Robert Moynihan, editor of Inside the Vatican magazine, said Burke represents the bottom flowing to the top of the church and then imposing the piety of the people.
"That's why the progressives at the top are a little nervous," he said. "They represent the pointy-headed intellectuals who have lost contact with the base."
Burke has spurred controversy as archbishop of St. Louis for, among other things, saying he would deny the Eucharist to various abortion-rights proponents.
Earlier this month, he was appointed to lead the Vatican's supreme court, and Moynihan said Rome is rewarding him for having the "courage of the heartland" and following his path, even when he has to go it alone.
"The strange thing about Burke is he connects up with the Mexican peasants," Moynihan said. "Far from being the distant, pale, arrogant white church leader, he's a person who resonates with the beating heart of the simple Catholic."
At the dedication Mass, Burke sprinkled blessed water through the church and rubbed perfumed oil onto the altar.
Water and oil are elements also used in the baptism of a person into the Roman Catholic church.
Those in attendance included Bishop Jerome Listecki, head of the La Crosse Diocese, Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia, Francis Cardinal George of Chicago, and Bishop April Ulring Larson, head of the La Crosse Area Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
EWTN cameras were located throughout the church, and the Mass was broadcast by the Catholic television network.
While most in attendance were white, some Hispanic people attended, and Burke repeated parts of his homily in Spanish.
In his homily, Burke said Our Lady of Guadalupe continues to exercise her maternal care.
"Millions of infants in the womb have been destroyed through the legalized practice of procured abortion," he said. "Our Lady of Guadalupe leads us to Christ who reveals to us … the inviolable dignity of every human life, from the moment of its inception to the moment of natural death."
An anti-abortion culture is part of the shrine's milieu.
A devotional area to the unborn is still being completed near the church, and anti-abortion bumper stickers could be seen on cars in the parking lot Thursday.
David Schroeder, 24, a seminarian in the Milwaukee Archdiocese who was at the shrine Thursday, wore a shirt reading, "They have tiny hands and feet, but they need a voice … Will you be it?"
He said he loves the shrine.
"Whenever I come here I always meet other people who are living their faith (like I do)," he said.
A small protest of 10 people from Pilgrims Covenant Church in Monroe, Wis., stood part of the morning just outside the shrine grounds, carrying signs that commanded Catholics to stop worshipping a pagan goddess.
"The things they're saying about their lady of Guadalupe are completely unbiblical," said the Rev. Ralph Ovadal, pastor of the 60-member church. "They give her attributes and power and authority that belong only to God."
In his homily, Burke talked about Our Lady of Guadalupe as pointing the way to Christ.
"Returning to their homes, her pilgrims will be filled with new enthusiasm and new energy to live in Christ more perfectly," he said.
No longer archbishop of St. Louis, Burke plans to move to Rome after mid-August, and said he plans to return to the shrine a couple times a year.
Joe Orso can be reached at (608) 791-8429 or email@example.com.