Challenging Catholic Shrines, Virgin Marys and Chapels (September 1994)

p> Religion in public parks took center stage in recent complaints by the national Freedom From Religion Foundation, with violations protested in Montana, Michigan and Wisconsin.

A Foundation complaint about the presence and upkeep of a Catholic shrine to the Virgin Mary in Indian Lake Park, Dane County, Wisconsin, stirred up death threats and brought intense media coverage in August. Following this coverage, two Dane County residents alerted the Foundation to a creationist slant at an exhibit for children in the Dane County zoo. A discreet Foundation complaint renewed a flurry of religionist harassment and media reports.

On behalf of a Michigan member, the Foundation has recently protested Chapel In the Pines, featuring a prominent window in the shape of a cross at Hartwick Pines State Park in Grayling, Michigan.

Most recently, the Foundation blasted Job Corps, funded through the Department of Labor, for building a chapel at the site of “Our Lady of the Rockies.”

The “Virgin Mary” also figures prominently in the Foundation’s Wisconsin complaint. After receiving an objection by a resident about the Catholic shrine at Indian Lake County Park, the Foundation protested “St. Mary of the Oaks” chapel, which includes a “historic marker” referring to “Mary, Mother of God,” a Catholic altar featuring a praying Virgin Mary dominating the tiny chapel, crosses, a notebook for recording religious thoughts, votives, and various religious paintings and icons, including a depiction of Jesus with a crown of thorns.

Following a front-page story about the Foundation’s complaint in The Wisconsin State Journal, staff received phone threats, including: “You should be shot,” “Watch your back,” and a vow to “get” staff. Police are investigating the incidents.

The Foundation wrote Ken LePine, director of the Dane County Parks Commission, that it has “evidence that the county was well aware of the religious nature of this structure when acquiring it” in 1976. A 1974 appraisal of the John Marx property containing the chapel valued the chapel at $3,000, including $500 just for the altar, and a $1,000 increase for “historic and religious significance.” A site analysis refers to the chapel as a “special park treasure,” itemizing the many symbols and describing their significance. The chapel is promoted on the County Park Commission’s map.

A second historic marker at the park entrance describes the park’s geological significance as both a glaciated and unglaciated area, with Indian Lake created when the last glacier retreated about 20,000 years ago.

“It is simply incongruous to see a marker touting the miraculous powers of the Virgin Mary given equal space with the scientific marker,” said Gaylor.

The county’s site analysis noted:

“Legend has it that when the entire family contracted diphtheria in the winter of 1856, John [Endres] climbed the hill above the family home and prayed, vowing that if his family was spared, he would build a chapel on the spot where he stood.”

The county claims that a deed had a clause stating, “that the one room chapel . . . is to be kept up and maintained by . . . heirs and assigns forever.” Interestingly, pictures on file at the county department reveal that the tiny stone chapel did not have a cross on its roof at one time, as it does today.

Foundation officer Kenneth Taubert, staff members Anne and Annie Laurie Gaylor, and Richard Jacobson, Foundation attorney, appeared at a public hearing in August, along with two Endres’ descendants and some local politicians. Lawrence Endres of Waunakee, Wisconsin, told the commission to “Look to the Bible.” In a letter to the Foundation, this great-grandson of the man who built the Endres family chapel urged that tax money be spent “to worship our Lord and the Blessed Mary.”

Dave Blaska, a county representative known for his reactionary views, announced he has introduced a resolution to protect all “historic and religious buildings” on county property, referred to “God’s spirit,” and compared the Foundation’s request to the Nazis’ terrorism on “Kristallnacht.”

Gaylor told the Parks Commission, “Persecution in the name of religion happens when violations of separation of church and state are permitted to stand unchallenged. As Thomas Paine noted, ‘Persecution is not an original feature in any religion; but it is always the strongly marked feature of all religions established by law.’ “

Dane County attorney Cal Kornstedt, who is reviewing the Foundation’s request, has admitted religious tracts should be removed from the shrine regularly. “No doubt there are other things we should be doing,” including a “separate accounting of funds” (a collection box is in the shrine). He seemed to concede that at minimum, the “historic marker” would need to be removed or the wording revised, and told the committee it “would take some thought” for the County to reconcile the chapel with the second prong of the Lemon Test, requiring that a government action “neither advance nor inhibit religion.”

The Foundation is requesting that the so-called “historic” marker be removed, along with the cross on the roof, that the altar, religious objects, candles and paintings be returned to the family, and that the entrance be roped off.

Noting that Wisconsin Trails magazine named Indian Lake the “best county park” in 1994, Gaylor said: “It’s a lovely park, but it will be an even better park when it stops promoting Catholicism and faith-healing.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation