Black Madonna Shrine – Bronislaus Luszcz
100 St Joseph Hill Rd
This gorgeous garden of grottos was built to honor Our Lady of Czestochowa, who came to be known as the Black Madonna because of the way she appeared in early paintings.
Brother Bronislaus Luszcz literally did all the building here, using rocks, broken glass, and castoff jewelry to add to the splendor. In one of the most fitting of conclusions, the good brother passed away on the grounds while hard at work on one last sculpture.
Although it is a bit off of 66, it is well-worth a visit.
The origins of this religious setting trace back to 1927. Among the Franciscan Missionary Brothers who that year emigrated from Poland to the St. Louis area was Brother Bronislaus Luszcz.
In his native Poland, Mary is revered as the Queen of Peace and Mercy, and Her most famous shrine is at the Jasna Gora (Bright Hill) monastery in the town of Czestochowa. The people lovingly refer to Mary as Our Lady of Czestochowa, the Black Madonna.
As a young man, Brother Bronislaus would sit by the road and watch pilgrims as they passed through his village on their way to Mary’s shrine. Overcoming tremendous hardship, some of them walked for hundreds of miles, sleeping by the road, to reach their destination. The memory of these people — the difficulties they overcame and the love and devotion they had for Mary — remained with him throughout his life.
Brother Bronislaus wanted to share his faith with others by spreading the Glory of Our Lady of Czestochowa. So, in 1937, he began his lifetime labor of love. Clearing the thickly wooded land, he built a beautiful cedar wood chapel and hung a portrait of Our Lady above the altar. The chapel soon became a center of religious devotion, with numerous pilgrimages, prayer services and masses being offered.
Then, one Sunday evening in 1958, an arsonist started a fire on the altar. The Brothers tried to douse the ensuing inferno, but flames consumed the chapel, leaving a pile of cinders. Today, however, the Black Madonna Shrine and Grottos continue to serve as an important site for the religious who visit.
Our Lady of Perpetual Help Grotto — It was here that Brother Bronislaus passed away. He had been sick with the Asian flu, and hadn’t fully recovered his strength when he returned to his work. On August 12, 1960, he was overcome by the summer sun. Leaving a trail of tools from the Fatima statue, he made his way to this grotto. His body was discovered by members of the community. They knew something was amiss when the failed to arrive for evening prayers.
Why Is She Referred to as The Black Madonna?
“Black Madonna” is a nickname. It refers to skin tones in the portrait of Mary and Jesus. They and St. Joseph lived in a hot climate. Hence, their skin tone would be dark brown or olive in order to survive the intensity of the sun and avoid skin cancer.
Not until the Renaissance were there paintings of Jesus and Mary with alabaster skin, blue eyes and blond hair. Previously, all religious artwork reflected the olive skin, with black or brown hair and eyes attributed to the Holy Family and the Apostles.
Contributing to the portrait’s blackened appearance is the fact that the painting is nearly 2,000 years old. When St. Luke painted the portrait of Mary with Christ, he did so with crude oil paints, which naturally dull and darken with age.
Additionally, the painting has survived a major fire — the one in Constantinople referred to earlier. Beyond that, tens of thousands of pots of incense have been burned near the painting while it was in the Eastern Orthodox Church. And, millions of wax candles have been placed before it as people make their prayerful offerings.
These and other factors have resulted in darkening the Miraculous Image — the portrait now referred to as “The Black Madonna.” (a reproduction of this painting can be found in the open air chapel)
The grottos at the Black Madonna Shrine are constructed of native Missouri tiff rock, which came from Potosi, a mining community 30 miles southwest of the site. Materials used in ornamentation — such as sea shells and costume jewelry — were contributed by visitors or sent from foreign missions. Brother Bronislaus built the grottos by hand, without the use of power tools.
St. Joseph Grotto — Notice the use of costume jewelry in the various patterns and the colored glass set into the sides of the grotto. When light passes through the jars, a stream of colored light would shine forth. The flower pots contain “flowers” that were once the light fixtures for the old monastery. These flower pots were constructed from Jell-O molds, laying one on top of the other. Some of the flowers were made from paper cupcake molds. Continuing up the stairs, you reach a flower garden with a statue of a boy playing with a dog. This was Brother Bronislaus’ favorite statue. Perhaps it reminded him of his youth.
Our Lady of Sorrows Grotto — You have now come to the first grotto built by Brother Bronislaus. A perfectionist, he worked on this grotto for years — tearing it down and rebuilding it several times. Though not as ornate as the other grottos, it has some fascinating features. The white altar stone is from the original monastery chapel. Prior to the present statue, a picture was placed there. A deposit box with a coin drop can be found built into the base of the grotto. Donations were made for lighting small vigil candles at the base. The statue of St. Francis reaching up to Christ Crucified is called the “Vision of St. Francis.” Vandals smashed the glass and stole the statue that Brother Bronislaus had set there. The current statue was donated in 1997.
Gethsemane Grotto — The Mount of Olives, where Our Lord and Savior pleaded, “Can you not pray with me for even just one hour?” While Jesus agonized in the garden, Peter, James and John slept. In this grotto, colored jars were used again to enhance the decoration. When it was first built, the jars would filter sunlight and illuminate the sleeping apostles.
(Information courtesy of their website)
(Photos & text © copyright 2006-2014 Kelly Ludwig, all rights reserved)
“Rare Visions & Roadside Revelations” (the book), by Randy Mason, Michael Murphy and Don Mayberger, Kansas City Star Publishing, 2002.
“Rare Visions and Roadside Revelations Coast to Coast Travel-o-Pedia” by Randy Mason, et. al., Kansas City Star Books, 2009.
“Self Taught, Outsider, and Folk Art—A guide to American Artists, Locations and Resources” by Betty-Carol Sellen with Cynthia J. Johnson, McFarland & Company, 2000.
On DVD – Rare Visions and Roadside Revelations, “Miles and Miles o’ Mo-Tex-Arkana”, KCPT, Kansas City Public Television, 1996-2001.