By BERN ZOVISTOSKI
The New Vision
It was a Tuesday – June 14 – when a raging wildfire ate its way over a ridge in the Huachuca Mountains and took aim at Our Lady of the Sierras Shrine, situated on a hillside overlooking the San Pedro Valley near Hereford.
At the same time, a crew of about 80 firefighters was assembling just above the shrine, intending to set a back-burn in hopes of saving the site.
Suddenly, apparently on a signal from a spotter plane, the firefighters “threw their shovels away and ran for their lives” as the wind-whipped flames roared down the hillside and enveloped the site.
The fire was hot enough to “melt metal and melt glass” and quickly consumed several structures and blew through tall oak doors on the stone chapel, gutting it, said Nannette M. Chouinard, the shrine site manager.
Though damaged, the ciboria and Tabernacle were salvaged.
Now all of the debris has been cleared and efforts to restore the shine are under way, with the hope that the work can be finished by Easter.
Last month The New Vision paid a visit to the shrine off state Rte. 92 between Sierra Vista and Bisbee, just four miles north of the border with Mexico.
The 75-foot cross beckoned during the drive up the unpaved Twin Oaks Road toward the shrine and the devastation was still clearly evident in the many oak trees and shrubs that stood blackened by the flames virtually everywhere within sight.
Nannette Chouinard escorted us to the chapel, where electricians Victor N. Silva and Luis A. Silva, brothers, were rewiring the structure.
The plan, Nannette said, is to restore the chapel first, then rebuild the prayer house situated nearby on “Mary’s Knoll.”
The fire destroyed the home of Nannette’s parents, Jerry and Pat Chouinard, forcing them to flee with just an overnight bag of belongings, Nannette said. “They lost everything except their vehicles,” she said, including their pets, three parrots and a cat.
The Chouinards moved in with her, Nannette said, and don’t plan to rebuild the custom retirement home they lived in for more than 15 years since moving to Arizona from Illinois.
Also lost in the fire was St. Joseph’s Home, which was used by priests and other clergy as a retreat. It’s boarded up, awaiting resolution of an insurance claim, Nannette said.
Further down the road from the base of the hillside is the foundation where stood a two-story guest house called “Mary’s Farm.” Youth retreats were held there, Nannette said, but the structure “probably will not be rebuilt.”
In addition to the Celtic cross, a 31-foot statue of Our Lady of the Sierras and two marble statues – the Angel of Revelation and the Angel Guardian of Children – survived the fire.
While the goal is to have the chapel open for Easter, Nannette said in the meantime visitors can come to the shrine to pray the Stations of the Cross.
An paved pathway on the hillside leads to the various stations, which were erected by retired people who wanted to contribute to the site, Nannette said. There is also a small grotto for prayer, and a waterfall near the cross, for contemplation and reflection.
On Good Friday, the Stations of the Cross will be said in the “early afternoon,” Nannette said, and the public is invited.
The Chouinards built the shrine after traveling with friends to Medjugorje, a town in western Bosnia-Herzegovina, close to the border with Croatia, where in 1981 six local Catholics reported sighting apparitions of the Virgin Mary. The site is a popular pilgrimage.
Nannette said her parents decided, after they returned home, that they should build a shrine to Mary on their property, as a place of prayer and comfort for visitors from around the world, and so they did.
Many of the pilgrims come from nearby Mexico, Nannette said. She said a friend, Graciela Valencia, brings bus tours from Hermosillo several times a year. She said “our friends from Mexico” also help out financially.
Anyone who would like to assist can donate by check to Our Lady of the Sierras Foundation, P.O. Box 269, Hereford, AZ 85615. Donations are tax exempt.