“The traveler has to knock at every alien door to come to his own, and he has to wander through all the outer worlds to reach the innermost shrine at the end.” ~Rabindranath Tagore
Dozens of roadside shrines, also called capillitas or grutas, dot the Arizona landscape. These miniature places of worship are different from the sometimes elaborate roadside crosses, called crucecitas or descansos, which mark the sites of fatal auto accidents and other tragedies. However, both are rooted in Spanish-Catholic traditions brought to the New World by early missionaries and settlers.
Part folk art and part expression of faith, these shrines are Southwestern cultural icons. Many of the shrines have historic value in addition to their religious significance. The Arizona Department of Transportation has an unofficial hands-off policy that respects the cultural tradition of roadside shrines, as long as they pose no safety hazards. Look for them on state or U.S. highways, as well as backroads that connect smaller towns. The majority of these are found in the southern part of the state. Quite a few can be seen on the Tohono O’odham Reservation along Highways 15 and 86.
Though most roadside shrines were built for personal reasons by a family or individual, they are open to anyone in need of spiritual comfort. The shrines are not tourist attractions but are meant for quiet prayer and meditation. They are best seen in daylight hours. Please treat them with respect. You will frequently find candles and artificial flowers decorating the altars, as well as photographs, notes, and tokens left by visitors. Be sure to leave some money in the donation box if you light a candle or would like to help with maintenance.
Another version of the roadside shrine is found in home yards and gardens, typically among Hispanic neighborhoods in Tucson and other southern Arizona communities. A great example is the town of Carmen, between Tubac and Tumacacori, which features many such yard shrines. The front yards of homes in the town of Guadalupe near Phoenix also contain these types of shrines. According to local custom, if a yard shrine faces the street, visiting worshipers are welcome. For photos of these and other shrines around the state, see: http://joeorman.shutterace.com/Bizarre/Bizarre_Shrines.html.
1. Chapel of the Holy Dove – This wayfarer’s chapel is located about 16 miles north of Flagstaff on U.S. Highway 180, the road to The Grand Canyon. The rustic, roadside refuge has a dirt floor and benches for seating about 20 people. Located on a high, windswept plain at 8,000 ft., its design blocks the wind and has a magnificent view of the San Francisco Peaks, Arizona’s highest mountains. The structure was originally constructed in 1963 by Watson Lacy as a memorial to his brother. After it was destroyed by fire in 1999, a group of Flagstaff residents rebuilt it. The chapel is maintained by volunteers and is open daily during daylight hours only.
2. Garden of Gethsemane – The peaceful serenity of the Garden of Gethsemane is chiefly the work of Felix Lucero, who died in 1951 at the age of 56. Lucero, who lived in a shack under a nearby bridge, hand-sculpted life-size figures of Jesus on the cross, the Holy Family, and the Last Supper using sand from the Santa Cruz River mixed with cement. He created the works to fulfill a promise that he made to God while lying wounded on a battlefield in France during World War I. The religious sculptures have been repaired and relocated several times. They are now located in the Felix Lucero Park at 602 W. Congress Street, Tucson. A path with beautiful potted plants and greenery winds through the park. The garden is popular for weddings, quinceañeras and small parties.
3. Shrine of Saint Joseph – A little known but must-see attraction in Yarnell is the Shrine of Saint Joseph of the Mountains. Here, the Gospel story is beautifully portrayed in a natural high-desert setting. In 1939 Felix Lucero was commissioned to build a statue of Saint Joseph among the hills and boulders in the Weaver Mountain foothills about a half-mile west of “downtown” Yarnell. Once the statue was finished, the project was expanded to include five more works depicting the life of Jesus Christ. While perhaps not as famous as his Garden of Gethsemane in Tucson, it’s just as impressive. A visit to the open-air mountainside shrine starts at a life-like statue of Joseph carrying Jesus as a child. From there, a path beckons you to walk with Jesus through His last days on earth with scenes depicting The Last Supper, the Garden of Gethsemane, The Way of the Cross and the Risen Christ. The life-sized pieces are set among an oak tree-shaded area amidst the boulders. Felix Lucero sculpted all of the work out of reinforced concrete. He had to develop a slow-setting formula for the cement so it didn’t harden while he hauled it up the hills in a wheelbarrow. Visitors can take a trail through the stations of the cross to see the statues or mediate in its beautiful park-like setting. There is also a rustic chapel. The shrine is open 24 hours daily and accepts donations for its maintenance. It is located is about a half-mile west of SR 89 as the highway passes through Yarnell.
4. Canaan in the Desert – Tucked into a residential area north of the Phoenix Mountain Preserve is a little-known spiritual retreat. Canaan in the Desert is a community of the Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary. They maintain a prayer garden featuring the stations of the cross, called the Garden of Jesus’ Suffering and Resurrection. Visitors can walk along a winding path past grottoes where bas-relief sculptures depict the final days of Christ. There is also a pretty little chapel with an adjoining bookstore where the Sisters sell religious literature. Canaan in the Desert is located at 9849 N. 40th Street, 1/2 mile south of Shea Blvd. The garden and chapel are open to the public during daylight hours. There is no charge for admission.
5. DeGrazia’s Mission in the Sun – The son of Italian immigrants, the artist Ted DeGrazia was born on June 14, 1909, in the mining camp of Morenci in eastern Arizona. A few miles away in Tucson, the interior walls of a small adobe chapel adjacent to the DeGrazia Gallery are adorned with murals that reflect his faith. DeGrazia’s stylized paintings of American Indians made him an Arizona icon after his artwork was first published in the Arizona Highways magazine in 1941, leading to his worldwide fame. Many of his works depict children; others reflect day-to-day tasks performed by adults. DeGrazia built his chapel in honor of Padre Kino and dedicated it to Our Lady of Guadalupe, patron saint of Mexico. The chapel features an open air skylight running the length of the building, which floods the rooms with sunshine. The chapel is on the grounds of the DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun, located in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains. It’s adjacent to the main gallery at 6300 N. Swan Road. The Mission in the Sun is open from sunrise to sunset (which they say is an especially beautiful time of day to visit).
6. El Tiradito (The Wishing Shrine) – This old adobe wall in Tucson’s Barrio Historico is the site of the only shrine in the United States dedicated to a sinner rather than petitioning a saint. There are several local legends regarding the history of El Tiradito, also known as The Castaway or The Fallen One. The stories all take place in the 1870’s-1880’s and tell of an enraged husband who shot and killed his wife’s lover after discovering their adulterous affair. The young man was buried near the spot where he fell. Some women in the community took pity on the sinful youth’s soul, beginning a prayer vigil that would last for years. Eventually other people would come and pray at the site, not for the murdered lover, but for people that had become lost to them. The wall is now blackened by smoke from all of the candles that have been lit there over the years. It is said that if you light a candle in the evening and make a wish, if the flame is still burning in the morning your wish will come true. Some of the nooks and crannies at El Tiradito also shelter notes and prayers from the heartbroken. El Tiradito is located at 356 South Maine Ave., between Cushing and Simpson Street. The present shrine, which is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was built a few blocks from the original which was lost to a street-widening project in the 1940’s.
7. Telles Grotto Shrine – This roadside shrine was carved into a shallow cliffside niche in the late 1940’s. During World War II, the Juan Telles family had five sons in military service. Mrs. Telles vowed that if all five of her sons returned home safely from the war, she would construct a shrine devoted to the family’s patron saint. The existence of this shrine represents the return of all five of the Telles sons and their mother’s subsequent expression of gratitude. Once the shrine was completed, Juan and Juanita Telles kept candles burning in it for many years. The family is now gone, but faithful members of the community continue to light the candles. A small parking lot and a short series of steps lead up to the shrine on State Route 82 about three miles southwest of Patagonia on the east side near milepost 16.
8. Ruben Licano’s Shrine – Ruben C. Licano erected this shrine to fulfill a vow he made in the 1950’s while serving in the Army during the Korean War. He promised the Virgin Mary that if he returned to Arizona alive, he would build a shrine in her honor. It took him a while, but with the help of a friend, Licano completed his small roadside shrine in 1977. Constructed of river rock and topped with a rebar cross, the shrine’s walls and roof partially enclose a small altar on which Licano set a 3-foot statue of Mary. Passersby have filled the shrine with personal mementos of loved ones and written pleas. Several times a day (as of 2002 anyway), Licano stops by to check on the candles and to pray. Ruben Licano’s roadside shrine is located about two miles west of Miami, on the south side of U.S. 60.
9. Pratt Chapel – In 1996, with the help of friends and relatives, a farmer named Loren Pratt built a tiny wooden chapel in the middle of an agricultural field as a tribute to his late wife. The cute little building is complete with a cross on top. The interior is less than 50 square feet in size. Each of the six pews can seat one person comfortably – or two if they sit really close. The chapel is located on U.S. Highway 95 about 15 miles north of Yuma.
10. Our Lady of the Sierras Shrine – Our Lady of the Sierras Shrine, completed in March 1998, sits halfway up a hill in front of the Huachuca Mountains near the town of Hereford. Its 75-foot Celtic cross and 31-foot tall statue of Mary are visible from miles away as you drive south on Arizona 92. They tower over a small chapel built near mile marker 333 about 8 miles south of Sierra Vista. The chapel was built with river rock from nearby Ash Canyon and features religious art, a Spanish cross, and hand-hued oak beams over the doors and windows. Visitors are greeted by a large angel with open arms, and inside the chapel is a mural of a welcoming Christ beckoning visitors to come closer. Pat and Jerry Chouinard built the shrine following a 1990 pilgrimage to Medjugorje in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where people claim to have seen visions of the Virgin Mary. A self-made millionaire who patented the counterfeit-proof tags for Underwriters Laboratories, the organization that tests and certifies the safety of electrical devices, Jerry retired and the couple moved to Hereford. They hired an architect to help them design their dream house on a hill overlooking a valley that reminded them of Medjugorje. In 2002 the fourteen outdoor Stations of the Cross were completed allowing visitors to make a 600-foot spiritual journey up the mountainside trail from the lower parking lot. A path leads to a garden behind the chapel with a waterfall and grotto. Directly diagonal from the shrine’s front entrance on a scenic hill is a prayer house named Mary’s Knoll. Inside in the prayer room is another mural painting of Jesus sitting on a wall as if he is speaking to us, while to His left is a full size statue of Mary reaching out her hands to us. The shrine and prayer building are both open to the public. Normal visiting hours are from 9:00 am to sunset. Admission is free.