shrine n. A place of religious devotion or commemoration, such as: a place where devotion is paid to a deity or deities, the tomb of a saint or other venerated person, a location where an important event in the life of a holy person is thought to have occurred. 2. A container or receptacle for sacred relics; a reliquary. 3. A site hallowed by association with a revered person or object or with an important event.
November 9, 2009 marked my second visit to Necedah, Wisconsin in just two months. I had become a regular. The purpose of my visit was to wrap my head around the 50’s built shrine. But I found that little remained from that era. The shrine had progressed to the early 1970’s and then stopped advancing all together. On this particular visit, my mother-in-law, Joanie, was there to take pictures. We were incognito, hoping to stay away from the prying eyes of the shrine elders (as I call them).
Our three-hour journey was filled with conversation, mainly about my book. By the time we arrived, my mother-in-law was fully divested in the town’s creep, yet miraculous possibilities. Like most Catholics, Joanie, although intrigued by the proclaimed holy site, harbored a few misgivings about being there.
We stepped out of the car, bypassed the information center and headed directly to the sacred spot. Joanie was in photographer’s heaven with the oddly situated stone statues, plaster molds of the Last Supper and, of course, the sacred spot – where the Virgin Mary was kept behind a glass bubble. She asked that I keep my distance while she took the photos. I understood. As an artist, she needed solitude to capture just the right images. So, I lagged behind a few dozen yards… not willing to completely leave her unattended (plus, I didn’t want to be alone either). I followed the signs along the pathway and re-read several highlighting my grandfather’s name.
Suddenly, I heard a panicked whisper, “Jenna-fah, Jenna-fah!”
Joanie was ducking close to the ground and pointing toward the sky where a flock of white birds had taken flight. I could hear the whap, whap, whap of their wings as they circled overhead.
“Jenna-fah!” Joanie grew up in Boston – hence the accent. “It’s a mir-a-cle!”
I realized at once that my endearing and quirky Italian mother-in-law believed the doves were a sign from heaven. A sign, on this chilly November day, that we were about to witness the second coming of the Virgin Mary to Necedah, Wisconsin.
I ran to her. After her initial shock, she had resumed taking photos in a mad attempt to capture the “holy” birds.
“Can-you-believe-it?” Snap, snap, snap went the digital camera.
“Mum, the birds are trained pigeons.”
“They’re trained pigeons. The shrine elders release them when visitors are on the grounds. It’s a nice touch, don’t you think?” I gave her a sardonic smile. “Just watch them for a while. They’ll circle a couple times, stop and then repeat. Their pen is behind one of the out-buildings.”
We’d have to wait another day for a sign. Or would we?
I returned to the car. As I crunched across the gravel lot, there was a distinct smell. I sniffed the air, hoping to locate the source. The smell was a combination of everything I found pleasant: fresh-cut Christmas trees, damp air minutes after rain, baked chocolate, the top of a newborn’s head, spring lilac bushes and crisp pages from a newly printed book. The beautiful fragrance lingered briefly and then vanished.
* * * *
Weeks later, my mother-in-law mentioned something very odd. As she walked the shrine site taking photos, she swore she could smell her mother’s cooking. It was a smell she hadn’t experienced since childhood. Walking along the pathways, her memories came flooding back of racing home after school, and throwing open the door to find her mother at the stove. The smell that greeted her was oregano simmering with fresh basil and tomatoes.
Joanie said the smell had lingered briefly and then was gone.
I guess our experience that day could be compared to a wine tasting, how everyone at the party tastes difference flavor; a touch of oak, plums, honey, and nutmeg. Who knows? Maybe we were blessed.