Olivia LaFond, Contributing Writer
“You can just feel your inclusion in [the] Bubble, but then expanding outwards and seeing UD’s place in the context of a larger community, and then also Mary as spreading out her arms and watching over UD.” -Madeline Respeliers
The first thing you see as you climb the steep, rugged path is the face of Mary, high above all else. A few more steps reveal the benches lovingly positioned before her, then her pedestal, the grasses and finally Las Colinas stretching across the skyline.
The shrine is simple, isolated and quiet. The only sounds come from gusts of blustery wind and cars on the freeway below. Mary stands at the end of a rectangular box of pebbles held together by railroad ties. She is off-kilter, leaning to the left; white and coral sea-shells are scattered about her pedestal’s base. On front face of the pedestal is an orange-red swirling cross design, probably etched into the rock by a Marian devotee. Another sketch of a rose crawls up the side of the stone.
A short wooden cross bound together by wire stands at the edge of her enclosure, so unassuming that it easily blends into the trees and grasses behind it. It serves as a small reminder of Mary’s role in salvation history, but does not distract from the statue itself, which glows white in the Texas sun.
No one knows quite how she came to be atop her little hill. Some say she was a gift from the Cistercians, others that seminarians brought life to her shrine. Yet neither group claims her as their own. The most likely culprits are the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur, who used the Graduate School of Management (GSM) building, which stands next to Mary’s hill, as housing for their novitiate. The Sisters were intimately involved in UD history from the beginning, playing an integral role in its founding and serving as many of its teachers throughout the years.
Mary herself stands atop Turkey Knob Hill just to the right of Namur Lane, the road that runs between the GSM building and the Cistercian campus. Her clearing existed long before the shrine, serving as a night-time rendezvous for students, complete with campfires and booze. Sometime in the late 70s’ or early 80s’, the choice of someone — be that person sister, student or otherwise — to turn the site into a shrine ushered in a process of discovery and rediscovery of one of UD’s best hidden treasures.
Mary continued in her state for several decades, her original sky-blue color gently fading. But she was often accompanied by gifts from devotees, such as the blue shawl that used to drape about her shoulders. Originally consisting of Mary’s statue and pedestal, the shrine expanded over time to include some wooden benches, placed there and tended by Jorge Rodriguez, a groundskeeper for UD. He visits the shrine weekly to ensure its well-being, and the benches were one of many small efforts he made to preserve Mary’s welcoming abode.
“I am 100 percent Catholic,” he says in explanation; the care and reverence he holds for the shrine stems from a natural desire to express his faith.
But in the early summer of 2011, tragedy struck: Jorge’s usual visit to the shrine revealed Mary’s statue overturned, her head severed from her body. Bottles of Budweiser littered the ground and even stood atop Mary’s pedestal, a gross mockery of the injustice that had occurred. Sometime during the night, the vandals had held a party atop the scenic hill, desecrating the shrine in their drunken antics.
Whether the statue was intentionally harmed is something we will never know: The glue that held her to the pedestal was decades old, and she could have been toppled as easily by a well-aimed shove as a drunken stumble. Jorge was left to deal with the aftermath; he carefully gathered her pieces and carried them back to Facilities, where she awaited her fate.
Mary’s removal left a vacancy at UD — an empty pedestal atop a lonely hill. Her hill was shelter for any and all — she had room for serious devotees and sometime-wanderers alike. Her shrine was as much the perfect resting point during a run as it was a place of isolation and consolation. Even at night, she awaited with open arms those whose motivation for visiting was more powerful than fear of spiders and coyotes. She offered an escape: a place to see the world, but not be of it.
After Mary had quietly become integral to the UD community, so important to the few who knew her, her vandalism was a cold, cruel blow. But reviving the shrine would take time and money, and her revival fell under no one’s jurisdiction.
Enter Paul Seitz. A high-school senior eager to choose his Eagle Scout project, Paul had the energy and time needed to restore Mary to her rightful place. He made the decision at roughly the same time he chose his future college: Fixing the shrine, to him, was the equivalent of committing to UD. He had visited once with his brother, Mark, before the vandalism; Mary was still pale blue then, draped in her shawl. The next time he saw her, she lay sprawled in facilities, her head cleanly separated from her body, her hair disheveled, her hand missing a thumb.
He began work in Fall 2011. His first order of business was to determine the best way to revitalize the shrine, then campaign for donations. Eschewing an elaborate scheme he might not be able to complete, Paul chose to keep the simplicity of the shrine intact. It was his idea to add the pebbles, held in by railroad ties, and to place concrete benches before Mary’s gaze: “I planned on using railroad ties from the beginning — something about their strength, sturdiness and look seemed to appeal to me. I later determined that that was because they reminded me of the stairs between Haggar and Madonna.” The result was a shrine that connects more closely to UD.
Of course, these plans were dependent upon the generosity of others. Facilities donated tools, odds and ends to fix the statue, and a space to work. Surprisingly, Paul did not have to go far to find the many remaining items he needed: When he approached the manager of a local Lowe’s about a discount, the man glanced at Paul’s list, then told him to take everything he needed, no charge. Mary looks after her own.
With the future of the shrine secure, Paul turned to repairing the shrine itself. He gathered friends and family to install the new gravel base, while Mark was tasked with repairing the statue itself. He used glue and rebar to re-attach her head, then smoothed her scars with cement, reformed her hair and thumb and gave the serpent at her feet a new nose. The final touch was a fresh white coat of paint, the white that now gleams for visitors to her abode.
After a month of visits to the shrine, their work was complete. By January 2012, Mary had resumed watch over Irving.
“I think it’s really interesting — the placement of the shrine, its location,” said UD student Madeline Respeliers, “because when you’re standing there and you have UD behind you and Dallas and Las Colinas out before you, it’s almost as if you have this experience of standing on the very edge of a bubble. You can just feel your inclusion in this bubble, but then expanding outwards and seeing UD’s place in the context of a larger community, and then also Mary as spreading out her arms and watching over UD.”
Her watchfulness is rewarded by the many offerings of love by students, evidenced by the many gifts she receives. The seashells which adorn her base appeared at the beginning of this semester. Shriveled petals are visible amidst the gravel and stones below — devotees have left everything from hand-picked wildflowers to bouquets of roses. The rosary around her neck is a different color this year: wood, instead of metal. It serves a twofold purpose: to adorn her statue, and to remind visitors to recite her favorite prayer. Even candles and notes have found a place beneath Mary’s feet, such as this anonymous dedication, which appeared on Mary’s pedestal, then inhabited by a small statue of Mary placed there by Jorge during the repairs:
“My Queen, My mother, I give myself entirely to you, and to show my devotion to you, I consecrate to you this (and every) day, my eyes, my ears, my mouth, my heart — my entire self without reserve. As I am your own, my good mother, guard me and protect me as your property and possession. Amen.”
These tokens of devotion are not the only manner in which her devotees would like to express their affection. Some of her student devotees also have plans they’d love to see implemented one day. For Respeliers, that change is a rose bed behind Mary. Henry Lowe would like to see more of the brush cleared, opening up a view of the abbey. Mark Seitz, on the other hand, wants to plant a flowering tree by the southeast corner of the shrine “so that it would provide shade, and, if people forgot flowers, they could pick one from the tree to give to Mary.”
Meanwhile, Mary stands ready to welcome visitors. Hers is a sacred place open to any and all. There are no walls, just Mary and the sky.