St. Mary of the Oaks Shrine - Atlas Obscura

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St. Mary of the Oaks Shrine

Cross Plains, Wisconsin

A tiny 1857 chapel sits on top of a secluded, forested hill. 

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Built in 1857, the St. Mary of the Oaks Shrine is a small but exemplary representation of vernacular architecture and an artifact of Wisconsin’s early settler history. Many German immigrants moved to Wisconsin in the years after the state entered the union in 1848. In addition to languages, food, and customs, these settlers brought the skills and trades they had practiced back in Germany to the United States. Many were skilled stone masons.

One such settler was John Endres, who built the shrine. A skilled stone mason, he adorned the building with architectural details—scored mortar to give a finished appearance and the rounded apse—that were commonly used in Germany. These and other details were often transferred to buildings built where German immigrants settled.

The most notable part of the shrine, though, might be its diminutive size and its elevated placement on a hilltop. Up to four people can comfortably fit inside the chapel.

Despite its small stature, the St. Mary of the Oaks Shrine took a significant amount of effort to build. According to the building’s plaque, Endres made a promise to build the structure after his family survived a diphtheria epidemic.

To build the church, Endres and his son hauled several tons of local stone up the hill with a team of oxen. The Shrine became a focal point for the local community. A few paces past the Shrine is a breathtaking view of Indian Lake. Archbishop Messmer officially dedicated the shrine in 1926.

Over the years, subsequent generations of local families have cared for the building. The original door has been replaced, the shingles weatherproofed with metal, and new wooden crosses have been added as needed. One thing that hasn’t changed is the community’s dedication to honoring the hard work Endres and his son put in over 165 years ago to erect this tiny place of worship.

Know Before You Go

As the building is on top of a hill, it is not wheelchair accessible. The hike is about a mile uphill and includes both stairs and terrain. Benches are provided at periodic intervals. There are several hikes up from the small parking lot: The one that leads to the shrine is directly in front of you when standing with the park entrance to your left. 

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