WINDTHORST, Texas – There may be as many Virgin Marys here as people, but no one's counted. Some, weather-beaten and pale, sit among daisies and clover. Others don bright blue robes and glowing red hearts on porches and patios. But the most famous is Italian, five feet tall, and weighs 1,600 pounds. She resides on a pedestal inside a grotto at the quaint, red brick St. Mary's Catholic Church. Along Route 25 bordering the grotto, black and white cows nuzzle the parched land. Small rocky mesas rise, like altars, in places. An old pump jack dips to the ground like a bird tilting forward, beak digging for a worm. A windmill churns against a sharp blue sky while a fiberglass dairy cow hovers next to the town's one blinking light.
People travel from around the world to visit the grotto, townsfolk say, but on the four occasions I stop by, I am alone. The grotto is a 10-foot-tall manmade cave that looks like a hollowed cantaloupe. Along the top, stone suns hold bits of glass and shiny rocks. Inside, the Virgin cradles her infant Jesus; green stalactites hang above them. Rows of candle flames sway slowly in the Texas summer heat.
I ponder a framed needlepoint of stars: 56 blue and eight silver, the number of World War II soldiers from the town of a few hundred German Catholic dairy farmers. The community held prayer vigils, or novenas, during the war every Tuesday evening. The soldiers sent part of their military pay home to erect the grotto.
In the eyes of the congregation, a spiritual contract was drawn with the Virgin Mother, and she made good on her promise. Each soldier returned safely. And in 1950, the grotto was dedicated.
The voices of the grotto's visitors tell a story as well. They write notes in the fabric-covered journal next to the candles. Throughout July 2005, people have hailed from Denver, Colo., to Smackower, Ark., as well as from locations all over Texas. One visitor, from Fort Worth, writes: "Please pray for me as well as my two friends; we recently became homeless. I am 19, Tracy is 21, and Monica is 25 so you know we could use all the help we can get."
Another reads: "Pray for loving care of Jesus, for my mom, and my grandparents' souls. Pray more for my husband."
Windthorst, population 474, is still a thriving dairy town – I spot a silver cylindrical truck, proclaiming "MILK," as it turns onto Route 25. In the 1940s, residents recall, the town was nearly 100 percent Catholic, and today, residents estimate the number has dipped, to around 90 percent.At a Sunday Mass, the church brims with generations of locals in their Sunday best who stand on the church steps chatting long after the service is over. As they walk to the parking lot, though, none stops at the grotto. Though I'm told that as many out-of-town visitors frequent the grotto today as in years past, the people who built it fear that the memory of its history fading.
My grandfather and two of my uncles were some of the servicemen for whom the Grotto was dedicated, and it makes for a nice local legend. I already mentioned Tony's service, which I would like to research more. According to his letters, they were mostly concerned with making sure they gave hell to some guy named Willie. I'm sure there was more to it than that. My other Uncle, Eddie Zihlman, served in the engine room of a converted freighter. His ship, the Cassiopeia, was notorious for "losing" Adm. Halsey's crate of whiskey, and then devising an ingenious method of using divers to retrieve a few bottles at a time. He was later transferred to Philadelphia where he spent the rest of the war apparently making heavy water for atomic testing. My grandfather's story is less interesting, as he told me he and a friend faked high blood pressure to get discharged. I never attached any sense of shame or lack of patriotism to this story, I can easily see that Ben Schneider had other priorities in his life. He married my grandmother the next year, and his regiment would have been one of the participants in the D-Day invasion, so I may be biased in thinking things turned out for the best. He did not know about the Grotto, however. Should he have stayed in?
Finally, a tip of the hat to the women in WWII. My aunt Anne, Ben's sister and Tony's wife, left Windthorst to work in the production factories at Ft. Worth. After a worthy effort to be another Rosie the Riveter (a tiny, hundred pound woman makes a lousy riveter) she was transferred to the dispatching office. Despite the fact that no one could tell her what her job was, she learned to keep the shipments going out.