Some folks know it as "Our Lady of the Highway." A few commercial pilots call it "Our Lady of the Skyway."
It's the National Shrine of the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes -- and you can't (and shouldn't) miss it. If you pass through Emmitsburg, Maryland, about 60 miles from Washington, a massive gold-leafed Virgin atop a 120-foot bell tower -- the whole awesome business looming high from a hillside -- will beckon you to the quiet delights of Maryland's answer to Lourdes.
It was built in 1878, two decades after the original Lourdes, on the site of a chapel established by Jean DuBois, a priest exiled during the French Revolution. He also founded nearby St. Mary's College, which owns and operates the shrine.
"It's so peaceful and restful, people can come and recharge themselves to face the problems of the day," said Monsignor Hugh Phillips, chaplain of the shrine since 1958. "I know there's God's heaven, but this is heaven to me on this earth."
The monsignor does not exaggerate. Carved into a granite mountain, astride a natural spring and creek, sit 20 acres of ancient oaks, bench-lined footpaths, flowers, birds, a stone chapel and, of course, the grotto. The scene, a near-precise but scaled- down copy of the shrine in the Pyrenees, moves most people to silence; all others speak in whispers.
Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton, whose remains are kept at the Seton Shrine Center, half a mile up the highway, often stopped at this pretty spot along the road to sainthood. So, regularly, did a certain U.S. attorney general. "He'd always tell me it was his way of getting away from the madhouse of Washington," Msgr. Phillips says. "I can't tell you his name: the bishop wouldn't like it." Even the Vatican's representative to Washington, Amileto Giovani Cicognani, sought solitude there.
The monsignor remembers well Cicognani's final visit in October 1958. He was leaving Washington after 25 years to "take the red hat" in Rome and become the Vatican's secretary of state. The cardinal-to-be, saying farewell, urged Msgr. Phillips to spruce up the shrine, which was "just a stone grotto, a stone chapel and nothing else." The priest took up the challenge.
He raised the money to install the tower and statue, build a parking lot, landscape the grounds and commission works of art to grace the paths. These days, amid tulips, daffodils, rododendron and lillies, you can savor bronze casts of the Stations of the Cross, plus an intricate mosaic, wrought in the Vatican, of the Mysteries of the Rosary.
Starting Sunday the shrine, which is just off U.S. Highway 15 about 20 miles north of Frederick, stays open every day from sunrise to sunset. With a few days' notice you can arrange a free guided tour by calling 301/447-6122.