Tour gives visitors glimpse of Belgian roadside chapels

By Monica Sawyn | For The Compass | October 1, 2014

Roadside chapels still popular in local communities

STURGEON BAY — If you think Belgian roadside chapels are a devout relic of the past, you’d be half right.

During a Sept. 23 tour of Belgian roadside chapels, Jean Callan, left, Carol Felhofer and Annette Townsend get an up-close view of Our Lady Queen of Peace Chapel, near Misiere. Townsend was visiting Wisconsin from Lincoln, England. (Monica Sawyn | For The Compass)
During a Sept. 23 tour of Belgian roadside chapels, Jean Callan, left, Carol Felhofer and Annette Townsend get an up-close view of Our Lady Queen of Peace Chapel, near Misiere. Townsend was visiting Wisconsin from Lincoln, England. (Monica Sawyn | For The Compass)

It’s true the custom of building small roadside shrines usually dedicated to a particular saint is something done often in Belgium and continued in Brown, Door and Kewaunee counties when Catholic Belgians settled here back in the mid-1850s. But it’s also true that the old chapels are still used, and new ones are still being built.

Newcomers and visitors to the area are usually puzzled, and then charmed, by the small buildings along the back-country roads, with only the cross that tops as the clue that they aren’t garden sheds or privies. That might have explained why 50 people crowded a school bus on Sept. 23 for a tour of those chapels, surrounded by bucolic farmland and framed by trees already sporting autumn’s reds and golds.

The tour was led by Barb Chisholm of St. Joseph Parish in Sturgeon Bay. Chisholm’s maiden name was Engelbert, which means, she said, she’s related to a fair number of the Belgian families in the area.

Most people on the tour were already familiar with some of the shrines. Many were of Belgian descent and most — but not all — were Catholic. Annette Townsend of Lincoln, England, is Anglican, and she said she’s never seen shrines like these in her country.

A brochure for a self-guided tour lists 30 shrines, most open to the public, some requiring prior permission to enter, and some entirely private. This bus tour had time to visit only a few, from the small ones with room for only one or two people, to the large ones that even include pews. Some had been moved from their original sites by families when homesteads were sold, while some still remain close to roads that have widened over the years.

Created with flickr slideshow.

“Often, the shrine was dedicated to a saint that had helped the owner through some difficulty,” Chisholm said. “It was, ‘If you help, I will build …’”

Each chapel has a small altar opposite the door decorated with statues, pictures, and sometimes photographs and marriage and baptismal certificates.

Our Lady Queen of Peace Chapel, 9415 County D west of Misiere in Door County, is one of the newer ones, built in 1992 by Jan La Crosse in thanksgiving for surviving cancer. Worried that plows would bury a small roadside chapel, the La Crosses moved it next to their garage, and it ended up being big enough to hold 25-30 people. Entrance is through the garage.

The white-painted building contains items donated from individuals or from closed churches, and La Crosse, who spoke to the group, said the string of coincidences that brought them these items seemed almost miraculous. It’s a shrine, she believes, that was meant to be.

Even newer is the beautiful Walloon Shrine of St. Hubert and All Saints, the result of a lifelong dream of the late Cletus Bellin. When he retired, he made it come true — but sadly lived only one month after it was finished in November 2010. When his farm was sold, the shrine was moved seven miles away to a piece of land between the homes of Bellin’s sister, Ruth Frisque, and her daughter, Mary Jerabek, north of Casco in Kewaunee County. A 4-foot high statue of St. Hubert, patron of hunters, was acquired from St. Hubert Church and dominates one wall, but is surrounded by many other statues of all sizes. A photo of Bellin sits on a shelf near the entrance.

This shrine, located at E2661 Pheasant Road between County C and Town Line Road, is kept locked, but Frisque is happy to open it to anyone who comes knocking.

“It hurts me when I go in and know he had so little time to enjoy it,” Frisque said, which is part of the reason why she’s eager to share her brother’s dream with others.

Possibly the newest shrine is Our Lady of the Snows, finished in 2011 by David and Dixie Engelbert. It sits on their property that was homesteaded in 1856 by David’s great-grandfather, at 1003 Pleasant Ridge Road, southwest of Namur, in Door County.

“I always admired these shrines and talked for some time about building one in memory of my ancestors,” David said.

The shrine’s name comes from the former church of the same name in Namur where David’s family once belonged. The church was closed when the parish merged with Brussels (St. Francis and St. Mary) and now serves as the center for the Namur Belgian Heritage Foundation.

The Engelberts now attend St. Louis in Dykesville. But it’s not only the old name preserved in the shrine. Inside the chapel are some of the pews from the church, which David cut down to a smaller size, as well as a Sacred Heart statue, candlesticks, and stained glass windows that were found in the basement of the rectory.

“No one seems to know where those came from,” David said.

A prized piece is the baptismal font where David himself, his children and his grandson were baptized. The plank flooring comes from an old oak on the homestead that probably dated back to his great-grandfather’s time.

Like other chapel owners, David often goes there to pray, where family and church history surround him. “There’s a presence there,” he said.

The shrines, dotting the countryside, are a presence in themselves, a reminder of the struggles and determination of a people who carved out farms and homes in the wilderness, survived the great Peshtigo fire and passed on visible devotion to their Catholic faith. Their roadside presence is in itself a form of evangelization. “Stop and pray,” they seem to say.

Any autumn “color tour” to Brown, Door and Kewaunee counties can include a tour of these shrines. A brochure with descriptions and a map can be found within most of the shrines, or at the Door County Historical Museum in Sturgeon Bay.

Related Posts

Scroll to Top