Henry David Thoreau said that heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads. I am not a religious person, although I was raised in the Catholic church to be one. I had my first communion at St. George Parish here in Hermann. The group photo shows a collection of shiny little faces, the girls in white dresses and veils, the boys in white shirts and ties – our hands clasped seriously in prayer. About 10 years later, we were all confirmed together, but we don’t appear quite so serious this time – too many other things occupying the minds of teenagers.
Even through college I managed to get to mass almost every Sunday. Then I went to Alaska, took one look at all the incredible raw beauty that hits you from every angle, taking your breath away, and I realized that maybe heaven is already here on earth. At that point, organized religion seemed, well, just too organized for me. It became clear to me that what I experienced around me, whether in nature or from the good I saw in other people, provided a much more spiritual connection than anything I could find in a physical church.
Be that as it may, one of the most spiritual places I have ever encountered is right here near Hermann, and yes, it does include a church. Northeast of Hermann, across the Missouri River, is the Shrine of Our Lady of Sorrows at Starkenburg. Germans settled in Starkenburg in 1847, including some of my own ancestors. The area includes St. Martin’s Church, the chapel, a grotto, the Stations of the Cross winding through the trees, and other historical features. My father’s father had a store just up the road in the early 1930’s, one of his many attempts at entrepreneurship. There is a B&B on the site now, Les Lavandes, an oddly French name for such a staunchly German area. I would say my dad’s fondest childhood memories were his years living in Starkenburg, and roaming the church grounds, illicitly shooting squirrels. Both he and my mother are buried there.
It’s not quite accurate to call Starkenburg a religious site, because it is so much more than that. Calling it a religious experience may steer some folks away from visiting it. Simply put, Starkenburg’s spirituality is tangible. You feel it around you – it has a calming effect on your being. You can believe in anything, or nothing at all, and the place just takes you in without any needed explanation.
The grounds at the Lady of Our Sorrows Shrine at Starkenburg are always open for meditation, a walk, or a picnic lunch under the trees. St. Martin’s Church, the museum, and the Chapel are open until dusk each day. Pilgrimages are held twice a year with a large German meal and mass at the outdoor alter (3rd Sunday in May and the 2nd Sunday in September). From Hermann, go north on Hwy 19; turn left on Hwy 94 for 4 miles through the village of Rhineland; turn right on P for 2 miles – you’ll see the steeples through the trees.