Shrine History

Devotion to Our Lady of the Snows

Usually, when one talks about devotion to the Mother of Jesus under a particular title, there is a link, either to one of Mary’s qualities (Sorrowful Mother, Mother of Mercy) or to one of her apparitions (Our Lady of Lourdes, Our Lady of Guadalupe). Devotion to Mary under the title of Our Lady of the Snows is one of the oldest devotions to Mary. It has direct ties to the legend about a marvelous snowfall in Rome in 352 A.D. Mary had indicated in a dream to a wealthy, childless Roman couple that she wanted a church built in her honor and the site for this church would be covered with snow. On a hot, sultry morning on August 5, Esquiline Hill was covered with snow. All Rome proclaimed the summer snows a miracle, and a church to honor Mary was built on the hill in 358 A.D. Restored and refurbished many times, this church, now the magnificent Basilica of St. Mary Major, still stands today as the seat of devotion to Our Lady of the Snows in the Catholic Church. However, Our Lady of the Snows is honored here, not so much because of the legend, but because of her special role in the Church that is by its very nature, missionary. The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate – the congregation of priests and brothers who operate this Shrine – following the inspiration of their founder, St. Eugene de Mazenod – have always called on Mary as their principal patroness, one who looks upon their missionary efforts with a mother’s love.

Devotion to Our Lady of the Snows in the Midwest

The devotion to Our Lady of the Snows was first introduced to the midwest in 1941 by the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. Fr. Paul Schulte, O.M.I., known as “the flying priest of the Arctic,” was a pilot who brought medical aid and supplies to remote Oblate missions, particularly north of the Arctic Circle. He developed a strong personal devotion to Our Lady of the Snows while working in the Oblate missions, and built a small chapel in her honor.

Devotion to Our Lady of the Snows at St. Henry’s

Fr. Paul Schulte, O.M.I., commissioned the famous artist, J. Watson Davis, to paint a picture of Our Lady of the Snows. Davis depicted an Oblate missionary and his airplane on a sick call to an Inuit (Eskimo) mission with Our Lady appearing surrounded by rays of the Northern Lights.

Following his ministry in the Arctic, Fr. Schulte came to reside at St. Henry’s Seminary in Belleville, Illinois. The painting of Our Lady of the Snows was hung in the seminary chapel.

At that time, Fr. Schulte and Fr. Edwin Guild, O.M.I., began to develop the Missionary Association of Mary Immaculate and to foster devotion to the Blessed Mother under the title of Our Lady of the Snows. In April of 1943, the perpetual novena to Our Lady of the Snows was begun.

The first Solemn Outdoor Novena was held in 1951, the final day being celebrated on August 5, the Feast of Our Lady of the Snows. The Novena became an annual event which soon attracted thousands each year. The painting of Our Lady of the Snows was given a place of prominence in the new chapel at St. Henry’s. Today, the J. Watson Davis painting is displayed in the Visitors Center Lobby at the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows.

The Ideal Location

aerial06As devotion to Our Lady of the Snows grew, the Oblates decided to look for a location for a shrine to be built in her honor. The search for a suitable site ended in February, 1958 with the purchase of 80 acres of farmland on the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River Valley. It seemed an ideal location for the proposed National Shrine of Our Lady of
the Snows.

A newly formed Layman’s Association enabled lay men and women to take an active part in the development of the Shrine. The purchase of 20 additional acres became a reality through the generosity and dedication of the association. In the summer of 1958, work on the Shrine began.

It was important that the Shrine be an exceptional example of modern architecture, and that the devotional sites be strategically placed throughout the Shrine’s acreage. The landscape architect, Emmet Layton, enhanced the natural beauty of the site by directing the planting of trees, shrubs and flowers at carefully selected spots.

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