Editor’s note: This was written by Sharon Miller in September 2018.
MIO – Our Lady of the Woods Shrine first took shape in the mind of a young itinerate priest as he shoveled knee-deep snow to clear a path for worshippers at St. Mary Church, in Mio, Michigan.
That morning, Father Huber Rakowski stood outside the small, white, wood-frame church and promised God, that with His help, he would build a special shrine in honor of the Virgin Mary. In 1953, without a penny and only two borrowed shovels, ground was broken for the shrine.
The impetus in the construction of the shrine was a white Italian marble sculpture of Our Lady of Lourdes, donated by a German Lutheran lady from Ann Arbor, Michigan. Once the shrine began to take form, many local individuals from various religious backgrounds, businesses and civic groups readily offered their time, labor and donations.
Much of the work was done by hand, with the aid of a huge scaffold, a homemade elevator, shovels and wheelbarrows. Builders used 25,000 tons of Onaway shale in the 3-foot-thick, 43-foot high walls.
Honeycombed with grottos and niches, the massive structure rests on footings 8 feet deep and 4 feet wide.
In 1955, St. Mary Church Lady of the Woods Shrine was solemnly dedicated, fulfilling Father Rakowski’s promise.
Spiritual and Natural
The name, “Our Lady of the Woods,” reflects the thousands of acres of God’s beautiful, majestic timberlands surrounding the area. Once home to lumberjacks harvesting timbers, the region is now a Mecca for hunters, fisherman, snowmobilers and tourists.
There are five steps as you approach the shrine; they represent the five decades of the rosary and five continents of the world. Five waterfalls show the flow of God’s blessing on mankind, and a lifelike bronze deer represents the Psalms, “as a deer pants for water.”
A wishing well below the middle niche is a reminder of Mio Pond, and the Au Sable River is to the shrine’s north.
The right wing of the shrine is dedicated to the state of Michigan. The largest opening symbolizes the Upper Peninsula (UP) and mirrors Tahquamenon Falls, with a cross that represents the missionary activity of Father Marquette. A bear cub reflects nature in the UP.
The next niche has a trinity plaque signifying the Straits of Mackinaw. And, the statue of St. Hubert, patron saint of deer hunters, embodies the Lower Peninsula of Michigan.
Our shrine has become a reflection of faith, a call to prayer and a means of evangelism.
Mass is no longer held in the open courtyard in front of the shrine, thanks to a beautiful new church that now stands in place of the white wooden frame building where Father Rakowski first made his promise to God.