The statue appears suddenly on the side of the road 50 miles northeast of Baltimore, where Interstate Rte. 95 dips into a ravine just below Elkton.

No travel brochures at the nearby state rest stops tout its presence. At six feet tall, it's not exactly the Statue of Liberty or the Washington Monument.

But to millions of northbound travelers it is a landmark nonetheless, a beacon signaling progress on the way to the Mason-Dixon line just a few miles ahead. Over their CB radios, truckers call it "the stone lady."

It is the Shrine of Our Lady of the Highways, a cement statue of the Virgin Mary illuminated at night and flanked by juniper trees.

Bushes below form a cross and the letters "VJ." They stand for the command "Vive Jesus," to live in the spirit of Jesus Christ. It is the motto of the Oblates of St. Francis DeSales, a Catholic order of brothers and priests that owns the shrine and four-story white building on the hill above.

A metal fence separates the shrine from the highway, making it difficult for disciples of "Our Lady" to do more than gaze at her. But occasionally stranded motorists climb over the fence to seek the oblates' assistance and telephone to call for help.

The oblates acquired the 275-acre farm in 1907, more than half a century before the opening in November 1963 of this stretch of I-95 toll road, now known as the John F. Kennedy Highway.

The farm formerly served as a seminary for novitiates in the order, "as kind of a boot camp," according to the Rev. Michael Connolly, who spent two years here and is now in Wilmington, Del., directing development for the order.

The shrine was erected in 1972, after a massive and fatal traffic accident nearby, as a sort of spiritual guidepost to highway safety.

"It's a generic statue of 'Our Lady of the Highway,' " Connolly said. "You know, it's just something taken off the shelf. They're a dime a dozen."

A real work of art, Connolly said, would defeat the purpose because motorists would stop to look, creating a traffic hazard.

For years before the statue, fog was hazard enough in the ravine. Hot steam from a now-defunct paper mill was said to combine with water from small streams, often shrouding the ravine in fog.

It was such a foggy night in October 1968 when the crash occurred: a 17-car pileup in which three persons died. The oblates dashed down the hill to help tend to the injured. Among them was the Rev. John J. Fuqua, the guiding spirit behind the shrine, which was officially dedicated in December 1972.

Until his death in 1979, Fuqua was the shrine's biggest promoter and protector. He even formed an organization called the Spiritual Travelers of Our Lady of the Highways and solicited safe-driving pledges along with donations used to educate seminarians in the order.

More than 5,000 travelers have donated to the cause, usually $5 and $10 contributions, in return for safety decals that say "Our Lady of the Highways -- Protect All Travelers" and booklets of travel prayers.

Society members were urged to "be sure your car is in good condition, drive carefully, with consideration for others, and to pray for your own safety and that of all other travelers."

Since Fuqua's death, the donations have declined, the statue has suffered the corrosive effects of weather and traffic exhaust and the painted sign marking the shrine has faded. But an effort is under way to revive the society and refurbish the shrine, under the leadership of Connolly, 40.

This month, he said, 10,000 letters are being mailed in a one-time fund-raising effort to refurbish the statue and sign.

The old seminary is still a farm, where 80 beef cattle are raised. But it is also now the order's Center for a New Life and functions largely as the oblates' retreat center and retirement home. The order's cemetery is also here.

Fourteen older priests and brothers live here, tending the lawn and the hedges around the shrine.

"One time I was out there cutting grass," said the Rev. Joseph Dunn, 73, who lives here in retirement. "I heard somebody yelling. It was a dirty-looking man from a big tractor-trailer. He had big seven-day candles and a book of matches in his hand. He asked me if I'd light it and put it by the statue.

"From his looks, he was the last man in the world you'd think would do that, but the poor guy had been working long hours and just needed a shave."

The "retreat" center is so close to the mainstream of traffic that thunderous truck sounds serve as background noise.

"I remember my first night here," said Connolly, recalling his novitiate days. "I slept above the chapel and all night long we could hear nothing but trucks downshifting. It kept all of us awake, but you got used to it."

Each day, 45,000 cars and trucks pass by -- 15 million vehicles a year -- but the statue is visible only from the northbound lanes.

Jack Crummel, associate administrator for turnpikes of the Maryland Toll Facilities Administration, said the statue is just something along the highway that people like to look at.

"Have a safe trip," Father Connolly told a departing visitor. "The last thing we'd need is an accident coming home from the shrine."