The Black Madonna in the Ozarks

Franciscan Missionary Brother Bronislaus Luszcz was a man with a mission - a mission to create a shrine to the Black Madonna of Czestochowa. He had great devotion to Our Blessed Mother, especially as Our Lady of Czestochowa. He spent 23 years, working alone, building her shrine. The result is an open-air church and a series of hillside grottoes dedicated to St. Joseph, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Holy Family and events in the life of Christ.
Brother Bronislaus was part of a group of Franciscan brothers who came from Poland to the St. Louis area in 1927 to build the St. Joseph Hill Infirmary, a nursing home for men, in the rolling hills of the Ozarks. The Black Madonna Shrine is adjacent to the site of the now closed infirmary, about 40 miles southwest of St. Louis, near Eureka, Mo.

The Black Madonna's history
The legend of the Black Madonna dates to the earliest days of Christianity. It is believed St. Luke painted the image of the Blessed Mother holding the infant Jesus on a wooden tabletop from the home of the Holy Family. Christians venerated the icon in Jerusalem for about 300 years before St. Helena found it as she searched the Holy Land for the true cross of Jesus. According to legend, she brought the icon back to Constantinople in 326 and gave it to her son, Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor of Rome.
The Black Madonna remained in Constantinople for about 500 years. Then over the course of nearly 900 years it was moved several times before it came to Czestochowa, in what is now Poland, in 1382.
Prince Ladislaus Opolski decided to move it to one of his castles in Upper Silesia after a skirmish in Belz with invading Tartars. When the horse pulling the wagon with the icon reached Czestochowa they stopped and refused to budge. Pushing and pulling and threatening had no effect on the animals. That night Prince Opolski had a vision in which the Virgin Mary told him to build a chapel there for the icon. The chapel was built and eventually grew to be Jasna Gora (Bright Hill) monastery.
The icon has survived fires and even physical attacks. In 1430, Hussites sacked the monastery and looted its treasures, including the Black Madonna. According to legend, the horses hitched to the wagon hauling the painting wouldn't budge. Soldiers tossed the painting off the wagon and the horses started moving. One soldier slashed the icon with his sword, creating two cuts on Mary's right cheek. When he went to strike it again, he dropped dead. His cohorts fled, abandoning the icon in the dirt at the edge of the road.
The title "Black Madonna" is actually a nickname given to the icon because of the darker skin tones of Mary and Jesus. As many people realize Mary, Jesus and St. Joseph lived in a hot, arid climate, so their skin tones would naturally have been brown or olive.
The Black Madonna painting is about 20 centuries old, and the artist used crude paints when he painted the image, which dulled and darkened with age. Along with the fires, the smoke from innumerable candles and incense has contributed to its darkening.

The Black Madonna Shrine
In 1937, Brother Bronislaus started on what would be a lifelong labor of love. Working alone he cleared trees from the shrine's property. The original shrine and the land used for the seven grottoes he constructed cover several acres. The original Black Madonna Shrine was a cedar wood chapel with a reproduction of the famous icon above the altar. The chapel became a place of religious devotion. There were pilgrimages to the shrine; prayer services and Mass were celebrated regularly for about 20 years.
In 1958, the shrine was destroyed by an arsonist who started a fire on the chapel's altar. No one was hurt in the inferno, but after the flames were doused, the chapel and everything in it was a heap of ashes.

The grottoes
After he finished the chapel, Brother Bronislaus started building the grottoes along the hillside next to the site of the original chapel. He built the seven massive grottoes over a period of 20 years. Each of the shrines is handmade from concrete and native Missouri tiff rock, which is a rough, ragged and multicolored material. In most of the grottoes Bronislaus incorporated seashells, costume jewelry, ceramic figurines and even colorful crystalline geodes.
He worked alone, placing each stone and embellishment by hand. He had no formal plans for each grotto. He prayed for guidance and then went to work.
Brother Bronislaus spent about 23 years building the shrine and grottoes. On Aug. 12, 1960, the other brothers became concerned when he didn't show up for evening prayers. They went to the shrine and found his body. While attempting to finish the grotto to Our Lady of Fatima, he apparently had heat stroke. He probably realized he was dying. Leaving a trail of hand tools, he managed to stagger uphill several hundred feet to the Grotto of Our Lady of Perpetual Help.
From the open-air Chapel of the Hills, built in the early 1960s to replace the burned chapel, visitors can see most of Brother Bronislaus handiwork and take a self-guided tour of the grottoes.
At The Bridge, the first stop on the tour, you can see above and to your left the Crucifixion Gethsemane Grotto. Its crucifix is actually a local landmark. Hikers use it as a point of reference as they walk through the nearby woods. Many hikers have used it to find their way to safety.
Each grotto is unique, but most are similar in appearance, incorporating the same kind of rocks and other adornments. All these materials were donated by visitors or sent from foreign missions.
Every grotto at the shrine is worth visiting, but certain ones resonate in a special way with most visitors. The Gethsemane Grotto depicts Christ's hours of praying just before His betrayal, with a large white statue of Christ kneeling in prayer and an angel from His Father on a small rise in front of Him.
A short distance from the statue of Christ are statues representing Peter, James and John sleeping through the agony in the garden.
Stop eight on the tour is Our Lady of Sorrows Grotto, the first grotto Brother Bronislaus built. He erected it and tore it down several times before he was satisfied. It isn't as ornate as the other grottoes, but its white altar stone is from the original monastery chapel.
A path leads to the Mother's Sanctuary, just above the Our Lady of Sorrows Grotto. On the far side of a pond is a statue of Mary the Mother of Jesus cradling an infant in her arms.
The Chapel of the Hills has a plethora of art dedicated to Our Lady of Czestochowa. There's a mosaic wall behind the altar created by Frederick Henze, a friend of Brother Bronislaus. There is also a painting commissioned by Cardinal Stefen Wyszynski, the former primate of Poland, to replace the painting destroyed in the chapel fire. It arrived a few weeks before Brother Bronislaus died.
St. Louis Cardinal John Carberry donated a glass-encased icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa thought to be between 200 and 300 years old. It originally hung over the altar of the Church of Our Lady of Czestochowa in St. Louis. The church was razed in the mid-1960s to make way for Interstate 55.
The Black Madonna Shrine and Grottoes are a fine example of what one person with faith and determination can do. Brother Bronislaus Luszcz's grottoes are a solid statement of his love of God and Jesus' mother.
Bauman is a freelance writer from West Covina, Calif., and the author of It Made a Difference to that One.

Find out more
The Black Madonna Shrine and Grottoes are located at 100 St. Joseph Hill Road, Pacific, Mo. For information call 636/938-5361.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2013