Wisconsin

On the main highway that runs through this town stands Mathias Wernerus' monument to God and country.

Wernerus was born in Germany, and came to the United States in 1904. Three years later he was ordained as a Roman Catholic priest, and in 1918 he was sent by the church to Dickeyville, a farm town near the Mississippi River in southwestern Wisconsin, an area settled by Germans.

The late priest was a fireplug of a man, short and robust, and some time after coming here he was inspired to begin a nine-year labor of love to the God he served and the nation he had adopted.

From quarries in Minnesota, Iowa and South Dakota, he brought in almost 200 tons of rock. From other parts of the United States he gathered petrified wood and moss and seashells and glass of every color.

Religious statues came from Europe and elsewhere. Other religious symbols came from the parish and as far as the French explorers whose names now dominate the road maps. People who wanted to be a part of the project chipped in everything from china plates to a tiny glass shoe.

Out of this assortment of materials, Wernerus patiently began to build his legacy. Piece by piece, he imbedded his materials into large stone slabs, year by year, combined the slabs into structures, which now dominate the church grounds.

What Wernerus left behind is remarkable to see, one of those oddities, like the Christopher Columbus family chapel near State College, Pa., that dot the countryside of America.

The most prominent structure is a grotto, with an altar and statue of the Virgin Mary inside, rose quartz pillars outside, and the papal and American flags imbedded in the rocks on the left and right. Near the grotto are piles of stones and shells and colored glass, with statues of Jesus and the 12 apostles.

Elsewhere on the church grounds are the Sacred Heart Shrine, the cemetery with its crucifixion gorup that was among Wernerus' first projects, the Eucharistic Shrine and the Patriotic Garden and Shrine.

The patriotic shrine features a statue of Christopher Columbus at the center, with George Washington and Abraham Lincoln at either side, and bells of liberty and unity close by.

"God's wonderful material collected from all parts of the world has been piled up in such a way that it appeals to rich and poor, to educated and piled up in such a way that it appeals to rich and poor, to educated and uneducated, to men, women nad children alike," Wernerus wrote in a booklet he prepared about his work. "Future generations will still enjoy the fruit of our labor and will bless the man that conceived and built this thing. Thanks be to God."

You cannot visit here without wondering if Mathias Wernerus wasn't a little strange, but Donna Dietzel, 14, a guide from Holy Ghost Catholic Church, is too discreet to answer such inquiries. Wernerus' work speaks for itself.