Northern Michigan is known for its outstanding natural features: rolling hills, abundant forests, inland lakes, numerous rivers and dune formations. But the “fingers” part of the Michigan mitten is also home to the world’s second tallest crucifix.
You’ll find it at the National Shrine of the Cross in the Woods, in Indian River.
Catholics who settled in the area were used to making long, difficult trips on unpaved roads to attend Mass in cities that were hours away. In 1946, Father Charles Brophy, the first residential priest in the area, arrived to serve the 12 Catholic families who lived in Indian River, as well as the numerous Catholics who vacationed in the area during the summer.
At first, Masses were held in the local township hall. Fr. Brophy and his parishioners dreamed of having an indoor church for permanent residents and an outdoor church for summer vacationers that would benefit area tourism. Undeveloped land in Burt Lake State Park was granted to the congregation in 1948 for $1.
The original indoor church was designed by Alden Dow, an architect from Midland, Michigan who was known for creating buildings that blended naturally with their surroundings. Inspired by Native American long houses, the church’s long, low lines follow the natural bluff of the property and fit perfectly into its wooded setting.
Five tall picture windows made up the north wall; Dow designed unique wooden interior light fixtures for the interior. The 250-seat church was completed in 1949.The outside church was envisioned to be a modern-day Calvary Hill with something unique that would attract the attention of tourists. Fr. Brophy and his congregation set out to create the world’s largest crucifix.
Construction began in 1952 on a knoll in the area behind the church. Two custom-cut Oregon redwood timbers were shipped to Michigan on a railroad flat car; when they arrived in Indian Lake, they were fitted with an iron base, which was then fastened to bolts in a concrete-and-steel foundation that had been buried in Calvary Hill. The 150-foot long, 75-foot wide and 15-foot high cross was assembled, lifted and placed into the foundation on August 5, 1954.
Michigan sculptor Marshall Fredericks was commissioned to design the crucified figure of Christ. The four-year process began with sketches, continued to a large plaster model fashioned in New York City and finally was cast in bronze in Oslo, Norway. Fredericks titled the finished seven-ton, 28-foot-tall figure with outstretched arms spanning 21 feet “The Man on the Cross;” he gave the face a peaceful expression that would encourage all who viewed it. One of the largest castings to cross the Atlantic, it was shipped up the St. Lawrence River Seaway to Detroit, then traveled on a flatbed trailer to Indian River. It was raised and attached to the cross on August 9, 1959. The 55-foot-tall crucifix was the largest crucifix in the world until 1986, when it was surpassed by the 60-foot-tall crucifix that stands in a Bardstown, Kentucky cemetery.
The church was originally intended to be named for St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the 17th-century Mohawk Indian known as the “Lily of the Mohawks,” who placed small crosses in the trees of the forest to create small chapels. It was first known as the Indian River Catholic Shrine; in 1983, it was renamed the National Shrine of the Cross in the Woods.
Surrounding the cross are religious shrines to the Holy Family; St. Peregrine, the patron saint of those suffering from cancer; St. Francis of Assisi, where you can find some of the many Kindness Rocks scattered among the grounds;
and Father Michael McGivney (1852-1890). After his ordination in 1877, Father McGivney was assigned to a parish in New Haven, Connecticut. There, he helped a group of Catholic men organize a society that would assist immigrants and their families, particularly in the event of the head of the household’s untimely death. Founded on principles of charity, unity, fraternity and patriotism, the Knights of Columbus was chartered in 1882 by the Connecticut legislature. Today, the organization has over 15,000 councils. Fr. McGivney was declared Venerable in 2008 by Pope Benedict XVI.
A shrine to Our Lady of the Highway, who protects travelers, resembles the wooden Stations of the Cross nestled in the woods circling the area. The Stations of the Cross were created by Ted Gwizdala, Dow’s master woodworker.
Construction of the Mackinac Bridge and the interstate in the late 1950s brought even greater numbers of tourists to the area. In 1997, a new indoor sanctuary seating almost 1,000 was dedicated. An average of 300,000 people visit the shrine each year.
The National Shrine of the Cross in the Woods is also home to the world’s largest display of nun dolls. Located in the building attached to the church are 525 dolls and 21 life-sized mannequins dressed in the attire worn by members of religious communities around the world.