In early April 1946, Bishop Francis Haas, of Grand Rapids, Michigan traveled to northern Michigan to make a survey for a church in the Indian River area. Parishioners from the Indian River and Wolverine area made long trips to attend mass at St. Monica’s in Afton, despite difficult travel on unpaved roads. A parish in Indian River would establish the first residential priest in this area of Cheboygan County. The Bishop and Fr. Arthur LeRoux from Alverno, Michigan went to the home of retired businessman Mr. James J. Harrington. He had been living on Burt Lake for many years and offered to help locate land for the new Catholic Church.
Despite the fact that there were only twelve Catholic families in Indian River in 1946 Bishop Haas decided a new parish would be established. There were large numbers of Catholics who vacationed in the area during the summer months. Through inquiries, J.J. Harrington learned of undeveloped Burt Lake State Park property that was ideal for a church. Fr. LeRoux asked the Department of Conservation for the undeveloped land, but was denied because they wanted to save the property for future development.
On June 23, 1946, Fr. Charles D. Brophy learned that he would become administrator of the new parish in Indian River and the mission church of St. Monica’s in Afton. The church’s name was to be St. Augustine after the son of St. Monica, but as he drove north to his new parish, Fr. Brophy took notice of the beautiful woods along the highway. He thought of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, the seventeenth century Mohawk Indian maiden who had become a Christian. She loved to make small crosses and place them in the woods in trees for shrines. Fr. Brophy wanted to use her name for the new church, but found he could not because she had not yet been declared a saint.
Despite the lack of a formal church building, parish life commenced. Masses were held at the Township Hall. Land and a church were still just a dream in 1947 when parishioner J.J. Harrington went to Buffalo, NY to attend a family wedding. While he was there, he went to an outdoor mass for shut-ins. The faithful could attend mass in a car and be near an outdoor altar. J.J. came back to Indian River and told Fr. Brophy about the outdoor church. Both men dreamed of an indoor church for permanent residents and an outdoor church that would attract visitors during the summer months.
During the year, there were many trips to Lansing and many letters written requesting the State Park land. Plans for the grounds and new church were presented. It was stressed that this outdoor church and shrine could be an asset for Michigan tourism to the area. The Commission decided to grant the land to the new parish in May 1948. The cost was $1.00 and a box of candy for the secretary!
Mr. Alden Dow, from Midland, Michigan was contracted to be the architect for the new church building, rectory, and outdoor church. He was a student of Frank Lloyd Wright, an architect who designed homes and buildings to blend naturally with their surroundings. Mr. Dow designed the church with long low lines to follow the natural bluff of the property and blend the church into the woods. Five tall picture windows made up the north wall. The design followed the idea of a “long house” so often used by the Native Americans. Memorial Day weekend 1949 saw the completion of the new church.
At the dedication Mass for the new church, Fr. Brophy announced plans for Calvary Hill with a large wooden Cross. He told of his dream to have the Cross paid for with contributions from around the world. At first, the idea was to construct a large cross with a life-size figure of Christ on the church lawn near the highway. But after discussions, Fr. Brophy and Alden Dow agreed that people would drive by and not pay much attention to a crucifix of that size. Something unique should be created to make people come and stop. It was decided that the largest crucifix in the world should be created. It wasn’t until July 1952 that Bishop Babcock of Grand Rapids gave permission to begin construction of Calvary Hill. The area in back of the property, adjacent to the State Park was cleared for the foundation.
Plans for the hill called for a fifteen foot high concrete and steel foundation that would be covered by thousands of cubic yards of soil. The finished earthen knoll would be 150 feet long, 75 feet wide and 15 feet high.
In July 1952, inquiries were made to find a source for the wood for the Cross. Redwood was the preferred wood because it was known to resist both insects and deterioration. The timber came from Oregon and was harvested by the Mauk Seattle Lumber Co. in the summer of 1953. The owner of the company wrote that “the workers put extra effort into this job because they knew the tree they were cutting would be used for a Cross”. It was custom cut with a chainsaw, and the squared timbers were shipped on a railroad flat car.
The wood was seasoned during the winter of 1954. It was then sanded, polished and fitted with an iron jacket or base. The base would be fastened to bolts in the concrete and steel foundation that had been buried in Calvary Hill.
When the two redwood pieces arrived at the Shrine, it took two days to assemble the Cross. On August 5, 1954, hundreds of people saw McCready and Sons of Gaylord and William A. Porter, contractor, of East Jordan use their cranes to lift and place the Cross on its foundation. The larger crane had a 70 foot boom. Lifting and placing of the Cross took only one-half hour. A crew of workers tightened the nuts to secure the Cross on Calvary Hill.
At the dedication ceremony an estimated 3000 people heard Bishop Babcock state that “the Cross looks like an empty house without the figure of Christ on it”. He announced that renowned Michigan sculptor Marshall Fredericks had accepted the commission to design the figure of Christ. Mr. Fredericks stated that he had always wanted to design a cross.
It took him four years to transform his designs from sketches to plaster mold to completed bronze. Fredericks rented a New York studio to make the large plaster model and took it to the Kristians-Kunst Metalstobori Foundry in Oslo, Norway to personally cast it in bronze. When it was completed it was one of the largest castings to ever cross the Atlantic. It was shipped up the St. Lawrence River Seaway to Detroit, and the seven ton figure moved on a huge flatbed trailer to Indian River.
Hundreds of people watched during the six days that it required to prepare the sculpture for lifting and attachment to the Cross. Hans B. Nielsen, a metals expert from Denmark, attached the arms to the huge figure. On August 9, 1959, work began very early in the morning, but by 6:00 pm the figure of Christ was finally raised and attached to the Cross.
A week later thousands attended the dedication ceremony.
With the completion of the Mackinac Bridge in 1957 and the Interstate 75 Indian River Exit in 1962, it was easier for travelers to visit the Shrine. Over the years, since the Cross In The Woods has become a reality, millions of visitors from around the world have visited to pray and gaze upon the “Man on the Cross”.