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Our Lady of the Lake

Delving into the allure of outdoor devotional displays


Published April 28, 2004 at 1:01 p.m.

It wasn't exactly a miracle. At least, no one I talk with uses that word. But when the woman in the shrine office tells me how the 14-foot-tall Blessed Virgin Mary statue came to St. Anne's Shrine, she hints that supernatural forces may have been at work. When I walk into the office one April afternoon, the shrine's administrative assistant explains that the one-and-a-half-ton copper figure had once adorned the top of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Burlington before it burned down in 1972. The fire destroyed the 105-year-old building and everything inside -- except the statue of Mary. "It was like, 'Do-do-doo-do, do-do-doo-do," she says, singing the theme from "The Twilight Zone."

The statue, christened "Our Lady of Lourdes" for the famous Mary sighting in Lourdes, France, in 1858, was stored in a warehouse for 17 years before being placed atop a 19-foot-tall stone pedestal at St. Anne's in 1991. Each year, thousands of people visit the statue, which is situated on a small rise overlooking Lake Champlain. "Sometimes it's a steady stream all summer long," says the worker, who asks that I not use her name. "Even in the wintertime you see people trekking up that hill."

But many devout Catholics don't need to trek far to see a Mary statue -- the Virgin is a common sight in yards and gardens all across Vermont, especially near the Canadian border. "A lot of times in gardens, you see [the Mary statue] as a focal point, a space where you can go to pray, to be inspired," my informant explains.

Though I was raised Catholic and find Mary lore fascinating, I've never been inspired by a statue, and I've never understood why people display them like lawn ornaments. To find out, I embarked on a pilgrimage first to Vermont's most famous Mary statue, the Our Lady of Lourdes, and then on a driving tour to interview people about their front, back and sideyard Marys.

It's an overcast, windy day when I approach the statue at St. Anne's. Despite its reputation, the figure seems to be more human than divine. The first thing I notice about it, besides its imposing height, is that Mary is surrounded by lights. Round bulbs protrude from upturned laurels at her feet and from the stars in the halo above her head. The bulbs are the same kind you might find on the octopus ride at a county fair. It's early afternoon, but the lights are on -- half of them, anyway. The others have burned out over the winter.

When I sit down on one of the four granite benches facing the statue and the garden at its base, I begin to see her differently. There's something about Mary that's both comforting and heroic. Unlike Jesus, who according to Christian theology was the Son of God, Mary is basically an Everywoman who was called upon to do something extraordinary. The Mary statue at St. Anne's evokes this image. Her eyes look up at the sky, and her head is tilted slightly to the right, as if she's listening for the call.

Imitating her reflective stance, I cock my head and listen. I hear birds singing, the slap of the waves on the rocks, and the rumble of a pickup truck passing by on the road behind me. Not exactly the voice of God, but calming all the same.

Carol Michaels, who runs the Shrine's gift shop, tells me that often people who display Mary statues aren't just looking for inspiration. "Most of the time, the gardens are out in thanksgiving for some reason or other -- prayers that have been answer-ed," she says.

Michaels has her own outdoor Mary statue -- a two-foot-high white figure made of plastic. "I didn't go seeking her," she tells me. She acquired the statue years ago, when she helped an elderly woman clean her house and move her things into a nursing home. "One of the things she said to me was, 'That Mary statue needs a home,'" Michaels recalls. "I put it so it faces the road, so it would be seen. I just wanted her there, as a reminder to thank her every day... She watches over myself and my kids... I come home from a long day, and I stop at my white Mary statue and say a prayer of thanksgiving."

Though her Mary is plastic, Michaels recommends cement Marys for outdoor use. The plastic might sag if left in the sun on hot days. "I can get them in all sizes," she says. "A 36-inch natural cement statue costs about $132. I can get statues for $600 or more if you want."

Doris and Larry Blanchard of Winooski also have a Mary statue in their yard to give thanks. "I thought, if the Lord would give me a house, I would have a statue in my back yard," says Doris Blanchard. The elderly couple has displayed their Mary behind their home for 50 years. The three-foot-high cement figure stands in a grotto made of concrete and stones and mortar. "A lot of people think it's a bathtub, but it's homemade," she says.

No one I spoke with could explain the Mary-in-grotto motif, other than to say that often, when Mary appears as a vision to the faithful, she appears in some kind of niche in rocks. But the bathtub, Larry Blanch-ard says, makes perfect sense. "Bathtubs are already shaped," he points out.

To protect their Mary from snow and ice in the winter, the Blanchards cover her in plastic. "At one time we used to bring her in the shed, but it would take two people to do that, and we don't have as many strong men," says Doris. During the summer, Larry Blanchard sets up rocking chairs, so the two can sit in front of the grotto and watch the cars go by on Main Street. "You'd be surprised how many people stop by," says Larry. "We got a lady from New Hampshire stopped by to see it one day."

But the Blanchards also note that the number of Mary statues seems to be waning. "People aren't as Catholic as they used to be," laments Larry, meaning both that there are fewer Catholics, and that the younger ones are less likely to display their devotion on the front lawn.

Jed Marcelino, 74, agrees. He displays a plaster-of-Paris "Mary in a grotto" statue in the strip of mulch in front of his house in Burlington's New North End. He's had a Mary statue for years, since he was a kid. "It's a reminder of where you can go, who you can go to with your prayers," he says. It disappoints him that younger people aren't keeping the tradition alive, but he intends to keep his Mary for as long as he's able.

"I'll continue to have one until I'm ready to go someplace," Marcelino says with a morbid chuckle. He enjoys having Mary around. "She's quite a person," he tells me, "if you get to know her."

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