A Pilgrimage to the Glass Shrine in the Field Off I-80

Keeping an open mind and a flexible schedule while traveling can result in interesting finds. Traveling along Route 80 in Nebraska, one can see a glass church not far from the highway. After leaving the highway at exit 432, the pilgrimage began (the GPS was not very helpful in navigating detours due to roadwork) to see this beautiful structure up close and learn about its history.  A Catholic church, it is open to people of all faiths to recharge and reflect or simply soak in the natural beauty and calming atmosphere.

The Holy Family Shrine in Gretna, Nebraska serves as a refuge for travelers to rest and embrace the quiet and solitude of the natural surroundings. Sitting on 23 acres overlooking the Platte Valley, the entrance to the church is through the underground Visitor’s Center which has been built into the hill. A metal sculpture that represents Christ’s shroud immediately attracts attention. Water falls from the sculpture into a pool that then makes its way out of the building, across the stone path to and through the church.

Water flows to the church

The church itself is constructed mostly of Western Red Cedar and glass and sits upon a limestone slab. The simple yet complex design took a three-person carpenter crew over two and a half years to build. Inside, the stream of water continues along the aisles and to the altar where an image of the Holy Family is etched in a 16 by 8 foot single pane of glass. Visible outside, beyond the altar, is a 40-foot tall crucifix constructed of stainless steel tubing and plate, with an 8-foot tall bronze figure of Christ.

 

The church’s beauty is in its simplicity. Though the design is by necessity complex, the effect is simple and airy. The arched roof soars to 45 feet at its peak and the glass walls bring the outdoors inside.

The story of the church’s origin is one of divine inspiration. Strangers, each with a similar vision, came together in 1997 to plan and build the church. Undeterred by a windstorm that destroyed their first attempt in 2000, the team persevered and the shrine opened to the public in 2002. Signs in the Visitor Center explain the inspiration for building the church as well as the symbolism in design choices. The building also has meeting space, a gift shop and restrooms. Native plants surround both buildings and a path allows visitors to follow the Stations of the Cross through a field down the hill.

A path leads visitors to the Stations of the Cross

People generally think of highways as simply a way to get from Point A to Point B. Rest stops are typically generic and utilitarian with little thought to aesthetics. In many cases they are not “restful” at all. In a world that often moves too fast, this is one stop that serves to remind us to slow down and reflect. Though it is not an  easy-on-easy-off stop, the restorative benefits are well worth the trip.

Note: The church is open to visitors from 10-5 Monday to Saturday and 12-5 on Sunday.

 

Visiting Lucy, New Jersey’s Largest, Most Popular Elephant

  front view of an elephant-shaped buildingLucy the Elephant is a hidden treasure of the Jersey Shore. We made a side trip years ago to see her and were captivated by the structure and its interesting history. More recently, I was going through old photos my mom had given me and found several of her and her parents also atop the pachyderm! She had not mentioned her visit, so I doubt she remembered it, but I have photos to prove we all were there.

a black and white photo of a young girl and her mother
Atop Lucy late 1950s

 

a black and white photo of a young girl and her father on a platform above the town
Atop Lucy late 1950s

 

 

 

three small children and their father on a platform with the beach in the background
Atop Lucy late 1990s

 

 

 

Lucy is the only one of three such structures that remains. Built in 1881, the 65-foot high wooden elephant reportedly cost more than $25,000 to build and the idea of an animal-shaped building was patented in 1882. James V. Lafferty conceived of the idea to attract buyers for his property in what was then South Atlantic City. He also built two others, in 1884, the 40-foot Light of Asia in what is now South Cape May (torn down in 1900 due to severe deterioration) and the 122-foot Elephantine Colossus, an amusement attraction at Coney Island NY, at a cost of $65,000. (This elephant had 7 floors and 31 rooms. A financial loss from the very start, it was sold and later burnt down in 1896.)

From 1902 to 1969, Lucy served as a four-bedroom home, a tavern and a tourist camp. She survived fire and hurricanes that destroyed many nearby structures. Since 1916, she has been a popular attraction. Notable visitors include President and Mrs. Wilson and Henry Ford who have paid admission to visit the elephant and climb her 130 steps in her hind legs to the viewing platform on her back.

elephant-shaped building from the side with three children sitting on bleachers beside it
Lucy late 1990s

In 1969, a developer bought the land Lucy sat on and agreed to donate the building to the town with the stipulation that it be moved in 30 days. The cost to make this move to a public park was $24,000 which was raised by donation. The estimate for restoration was $124,000. Work began in 1973 and tours resumed in 1974. Costs to upkeep the structure have been considerable and numerous fundraising campaigns have been launched to care for it. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Lucy is currently maintained by the non-profit Save Lucy Committee Inc.

Lucy the Elephant can be found at Josephine Harron Park in Margate, NJ. Tours are given every half hour. The building is also available for private events such as weddings and parties.

 

This was previously published as Margate NJ, Home to Lucy the Elephant

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