By Don Kruse
Deacon Joe Horton led pilgrims deep into the woods, stopping at the Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto to read from a prayer book first used in the early 1940s.
Pilgrims carried a 19th-century image of the Blessed Mother in procession throughout the grounds, first while praying the Rosary, then during the Stations of the Cross.
They were taking part in a generations-old tradition, the annual Spring Pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Sorrows in Starkenburg.
Since the late 1800s, pilgrimages have been held twice a year at the shrine — on the third Sunday in May and the second Sunday in September.
In decades past, the pilgrimages drew more than 1,000 people from across the country to this pastoral enclave of faith and devotion.
Stories are told about some experiencing healing, leaving crutches and canes at the shrine or at the grotto.
The Spring Pilgrimage, held this year on May 21, remains an inspiring event in a tranquil place, with hundreds gathering to pray and seek Our Lady’s intercession for special blessings.
Each year, as pilgrims bask in Starkenburg hospitality, longtime parishioners look back to the days when accommodating visiting guests took on an altogether different commitment.
“I remember going (to the pilgrimage) with grandma and grandpa when I was only about 6 or 8,” said Sib Elsenraat, 85, of Rhineland, whose grandparents were Henry and Catherine (Pottebaum) Elsenraat.
“But I mostly remember when I was in my early teens,” he said. “I would go to the MK&T railroad depot in Rhineland and pick up passengers in a stock truck. I backed up to the loading dock, the pilgrims would get on the back of the truck, and I would haul them up to Starkenburg.”
It was a special train that came from St. Louis, and it would wait there all day, with the engine idling on a side track.
“In the evening, I would bring them back down to the train,” he said.
Long way from St. Louis
Mr. Elsenraat vividly recalls the pilgrimages of the late 1930s and early 1940s, when modes of transportation were much different.
As a teenager, he lived in Rhineland with his parents, while his grandparents lived in the hills of Starkenburg.
The towns were served by the former St. Joseph parish and the former St. Martin parish, respectively.
Together, they are now known as Church of the Risen Savior parish.
Mr. Elsenraat remembers living just a few miles from where many pilgrims would process in solemn prayer for the day-long pilgrimages.
“People from Starkenburg and Rhineland would also meet the train with teams of horses and wagons, and some pilgrims would walk from the depot to the Shrine at Starkenburg,” he said.
Passenger trains stopped coming to Rhineland long ago, so out-of-town guests started coming more in buses and personal automobiles.
Until the mid-1950s, when the Hermann and Rhineland parishes were drawn into the newly created Diocese of Jefferson City, they were part of the Archdiocese of St. Louis. Thus, much of the publicity for the pilgrimages appeared in St. Louis newspapers and church bulletins in the archdiocese.
There are also stories of connections with individuals and Catholic parishes in St. Louis who contributed to the Shrine of Our Lady of Sorrows and rallied pilgrims to make the trip.
The majestic Mount Olivet grotto, rebuilt in 1941, was originally donated by St. Louis parishioners in 1904.
Sylvia (VanBooven) Bruckerhoff, who grew up in the Starkenburg area and graduated from St. George High School in Hermann in the late 1950s, said getting ready for the pilgrims took a lot of planning and work, which started days and weeks before the pilgrimage.
“Church parishioners would bring rakes, hoes and shovels to clean up the grounds around the shrine,” she said.
Work was even started at home, where the women would cut the green beans, prepare the other vegetables and butcher the chickens.
Then they would bring them to the old Pilgrimage Hall near the shrine for a delicious Sunday dinner.
“The menu hasn’t changed in all these years,” said Mrs. Bruckerhoff. “We still serve chicken and roast beef, corn and green beans. All the vegetables were grown locally in the gardens.”
And when Bruckerhoff was a young girl, spuds were plentiful in the gardens of local farmers, and they all brought potatoes to be washed and peeled at the Starkenburg hall kitchen.
“And they (the pilgrims) always wanted homemade bread,” she said. “They would ask for it.”
What the women no longer do is bring lard and iron skillets to the hall, where they would spend hours in the kitchen simmering pan-fried chicken.
“Everyone was supposed to bring a half-gallon of lard to fry the chickens,” Mrs. Bruckerhoff recalls. “They heated the water in the black kettles for coffee and washing dishes.”
Her class (1954) was the last to graduate from the old St. Martin School at Starkenburg.
There were four in her class, and they would all pitch in and help with preparation for the annual pilgrimage.
The work detail for students back then, leading up to the pilgrimage, included a variety of jobs, one of which was to clean the wax candles in church and at the shrine.
“It was no play day for us,” she smiled. “We all had to help clean the candles.”
Housing the pilgrims
Shirley Koenig and her late husband, Joe, compiled and wrote a history of the Shrine of Our Lady of Sorrows several decades ago.
In the booklet, they transcribed notes that were in a diary of Father George Hoehn, a priest from Heppenheim, Germany, who ministered at Starkenburg from 1887-1925.
Mrs. Koenig, 81, attended the May 21 pilgrimage and recalls hearing stories from the older residents.
“Before the trains came through, the local people would keep the pilgrims in their homes,” she said. “They would come and stay several days. Fr. Hoehn talked about that in his diary. The men, if there was an overflow, would stay in barns. That was in the early 1900s.”
The grounds at the shrine have changed since the early days of the pilgrimage. There used to be more buildings to shelter the pilgrims — a second story of the school house, and a pilgrim’s hall that was also used for housing.
Mrs. Koenig recalls that a sisters’ convent had been used at one time to house the guests.
Services the same
People have been making pilgrimages to the Shrine of Our Lady of Sorrows at Starkenburg for well over 100 years.
They may not be sitting under a shade tree eating a hot chicken dinner, because now they have a large, modern Valentine Hall to enjoy their Sunday meal.
But the Rosary procession through the woods, the Way of the Cross and the outdoor Mass continue on according to tradition.
At this year’s pilgrimage, Deacon Horton and Deacon Gerald Korman of the Rhineland parish presided over the prayer service and Stations of the Cross.
Monsignor Gregory L. Higley, pastor of St. George parish in Hermann and Church of the Risen Savior parish in Rhineland, offered the closing Mass at the outdoor altar.
Candles flickered, flowers bloomed, children looked on with awe, and from her throne in heaven, Our Lady of Sorrows smiled.
The Shrine of Our Lady of Sorrows and St. Martin’s Church Museum are open daily for visitors.
They are located in Montgomery County, 2 miles north of the Katy Trail, on Highway P.
For more information, visit www.historicshrine.com or www.valentinehall.org, or call (573) 236-4390.
Mr. Kruse, a member of St. George parish in Hermann, is a free-lance writer and retired editor of the Hermann Advertiser-Courier.