Situated high on a hill in the Huachuca Mountains, overlooking the San Pedro Valley a few miles southeast of Sierra Vista, Arizona, is an imposing 75 foot Celtic cross.
But that’s not all. Accompanying the cross are other religious icons occupying several acres – a 31 foot statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary; 10 foot Angel of Revelation; life-sized Christmas manger scene; Our Lady of Guadalupe Grotto; 14 outdoor Stations of the Cross; hand crafted rock waterfall; beautiful stone chapel and “Mary’s Knoll,” a combination prayer and visitor’s center.
The project was the concept of Gerald and Pat Chouinard of Illinois who, after visiting the area in 1990, decided Ash Canyon would be an excellent location to construct their retirement home and a shrine similar to one they had visited in Medjugorje, Yugoslavia.
Their home was completed late in 1991 and a decision was made to erect a large cross and Mary statue. However, Cochise County zoning regulations did not allow for such structures unless they could be considered monuments. In order to comply with the zoning requirements and qualify as a monument a stone chapel was included.
Still, additional opposition and legal hassles ensued. Following several years of back and forth courtroom drama, the permits were finally approved. Construction resumed and Our Lady of the Sierras Shrine was completed in 1998.
Improvements and additions to the shrine continued for the next several years. Popularity of the little church on the hill increased, drawing tourists and worshipers from distant places. Tour buses from Mexico often transport devotionists to this sacred place. Because the chapel is an active church, Sunday services are conducted by visiting area pastors.
All went well until June of 2011. A massive wildfire, starting in Mexico a few miles south, swept through the Huachuca Mountains destroying many homes and other properties, including the shrine’s chapel. The interior was gutted as well as ceiling and everything else made of wood or combustible material.
Not discouraged, the Chouinard’s and volunteers began rebuilding and cleaning the property, determined to make it better than it was. Through faith and perseverance, the shrine was reopened in mid-2014. Today, no appearance of fire can be seen as damaged items and vegetation have been removed, replaced, repaired and repainted.
Living in Safford, Arizona, approximately 110 miles from Sierra Vista, I wasn’t aware of the existence of Our Lady of the Sierras Shrine until I stumbled upon it during a google search on a semi-related subject. One site led to another until the shrine’s web page appeared.
Curious, I clicked on and was immediately fascinated by the story and all the difficulties associated with its initial construction. It’s was then I decided to plan a visit to actually see this larger than life-sized work of art, which is basically what it is.
A few interesting facts on the shrine:
Chapel: Completed in 1998 and restored in 2012 following the 2011 “Monument Fire.” Constructed of local river rock, large Douglas Fir ceiling beams, solid oak cabinetry, an early 1900s antique bronze tabernacle and limestone altar.
Celtic Cross: 75 feet high, 30 tons in weight, constructed of structural steel, concrete/fiberglass exterior with a hand sculpted finish, inscribed with the word “VITA” – life.
Virgin Mary Statue: 31 feet high, weighing 25 tons, constructed of welded steel, also with a hand sculpted concrete exterior.
Upper Grotto: Completed in September 1999, located on hill above the chapel.
Outdoor Stations of the Cross: Finished in 2002 and restored in 2012.
Our Lady of Guadalupe Grotto: Opened in July 2004, situated in the parking lot below the chapel.
Angel of Revelation Statue: 10 feet high, installed in August 2004.
Guardian of the Children: A bronze plaque installed in 2006 marking the “final closure” of one being involved in an abortion. There is a small quartz box into which one may place the name of the aborted child, which is intended to aid in the healing process.
Garden of Consolation: Opened in October 2006.
Regardless, of an individual’s religious preference or non-preference, the shrine is a beautiful, peaceful and interesting place to visit. I recommend it to anyone contemplating a casual day-trip in Southeastern Arizona. Also, the historical towns of Tombstone and Bisbee are in the same general vicinity.
To reach the shrine from Tucson, take I-10 east toward Benson about 35 miles to state Hwy 90. Turn south (right) on state Hwy 90 until it intersects with Fry Blvd. in Sierra Vista. Turn left and proceed down Fry Blvd. until it intersects with Hwy 92. Turn south (right)on Hwy 92 for approximately 12 miles to milepost 333 and turn right on Stone Ridge Rd. The shrine is about a mile up the road. You will easily see the large cross, chapel and statues on the side of the hill.