In your travels around northeast Wisconsin this summer, you may visit Door County. Along the way, you might see some small, frame buildings that look like little tool sheds — except for the little crosses on top.
There are about two dozen of these wayside chapels dotting Door, northern Brown and Kewaunee counties. They were built by Belgian immigrants and their descendants. For example, there is Our Mother of Perpetual Help Chapel at 9861 W. Swamp Road and St. Roch Chapel on 1257 County Highway DK, both open to the public. There is also a wayside chapel (originally in Dyckesville) that has been moved to the grounds of Our Lady of Good Help Chapel, 4047 Chapel Drive, New Franken.
Private, yet public
These chapels — generally consisting of an altar, statues, a cross and someplace to sit and/or kneel, were erected by families as places of prayer or in gratitude for help, such as healing from an illness. While located on private land, the chapels were always placed so that they were near a road and accessible to all. (Some are now on private lands. For a map and addresses visit this site: walloonbelgiansdoorpeninsula.weebly.com/chapels-map.html.)
Wayside or roadside chapels of a variety of types are not unique to this part of Wisconsin and actually date back to Roman and Greek times, when statues of the god Hermes (the god of travelers), set in small shrines, would guide travelers along commonly travelled routes.
Wayside shrines can be found across Europe from Poland and Slovenia to Italy and France, Belgium and England. They range in size from single pillars, called column shrines and Schöpflöffel shrines (meaning “serving spoon” in German), to roofed boxes nailed to trees to more elaborate chapel-shrines.
In France, you can find calvaires (stone crucifixion scenes), some dating to the eighth century, and often placed along travel routes. Many have been lost over the centuries.
In England, there are Eleanor crosses, marking stops of the funeral cortege of Queen Eleanor of Castile in 1290. Eleanor crosses — the most famous of which is London’s Charing Cross — were erected by her grief-stricken husband, King Edward I, so that anyone passing by would offer a prayer for her soul.
Wayside shrines were often located along routes taken by pilgrims to famous shrines, placed at crossroads or major geographic sites, such as mountaintops or springs and fountains. One such route traverses lower Austria leading toward the shrine of Mary, called Mariazell.
Many wayside shrines honored local saints. For example, St. Jan Nepomucký (John Nepomucene) is the patron saint of the Czech Republic and wayside shrines honoring him can be found along rivers and waterways, many to seek his help against flooding. (He was martyred by drowning.)
Another martyr is St. Florian, who was set on fire. He is a patron of many roadside shrines in Poland, often placed near wooden buildings. This patron of firefighters is often shown holding a pitcher of water.
One of the more unusual — some might even call it an “out of the way wayside shrine” — is Christ of the Abyss near Portofino, Italy. It is a statue of Jesus, with upraised hands, that was placed on the seabed 50 feet down in the Bay of San Fruttuoso in 1954. It was set there after the death of a diver, Dario Gonzatti. Other Christ of the Abyss statues exist underwater in several places, including one at Key Largo in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. It was placed there in 1961.
Even the humble bathtub shrines seen in yards from the Midwest to the U.S. East Coast, sometimes adorned with seashells, can qualify as wayside shrines. Made from a half-buried cast iron tub, these shrines most often hold a statue of Mary, but can also hold a cross or a statue of another saint.
Another modern development — seen also in Europe — is roadside memorials. These are most often homemade crosses marking the site of fatal accidents. These roadside crosses can be controversial, since they can create road hazards of their own and some are not well-maintained. However, they are very common in Mexico, Ukraine and South America, where they are usually maintained by family members.
While not technically a wayside shrine — erected to honor God through his saints — these roadside memorials nonetheless mark places of prayer and remind us to turn to God in all our journeys.
Sources: fisheaters.com; wikipedia.org; Fla-keys.com; mostlywalking.com; ncregister.com; waysideshrines.org;blog.polishorigins.com;nepomunki.pl; Traveltime-britain.com; and walloonbelgiansdoorpeninsula.weebly.com.