Our Lady of the Rivers
The walkway stretches out 184 yards. Sometimes, during heavy spring rains, water covers it completely. But one figure rises above the shoreline, day in and day out. It’s the statue of the Virgin Mary, a statue that is both a reminder of the tremendous power of nature and a tribute to its incredible beauty.
Our Lady of the Rivers gets its name from the fact that three major rivers – the Illinois, Missouri and Mississippi – meet within a few miles of the site. The Shrine itself commemorates an event that took place in July of 1951. But the actual story goes back more than 200 years.
When Sioux Indians first canoed the Missouri and Mississippi, they quickly discovered that at one point, only two miles of land separated these mighty rivers. A two-mile walk would save them 25 miles of back-breaking paddling. Legend has it that a band of Sioux, being pursued by their enemies, the Osage, escaped by use of this portage which was not known to the pursuers.
(Historical note from Wikipedia - The Treaties of Portage des Sioux were a series of treaties at Portage des Sioux, Missouri in 1815 that officially were supposed to mark the end of conflicts between the United States and Native Americans at the conclusion of the War of 1812.)
The early French settlers named the route Portage des Sioux. By 1799, a mission had been erected at the Mississippi terminus of the cut-off. But as time passed, the center of commerce passed down the Mississippi to St. Louis and up the Missouri to St. Charles, leaving the town a small and friendly community surrounded by fertile farms of rich river bottom land. And so it remained.
In 1938, a dam was built at nearby Alton, Illinois and several of Portage’s riverfront streets were flooded. Through the year, floods came and went but none were great enough to be a serious threat to Portage. But as levees became higher and more numerous, each succeeding flood rose a little higher.
In July of 1951, an unusually high flood developed on the Missouri. It left in its wake 41 people dead and over a billion dollars in damage. At first, there was no serious threat to Portage. But the rains continued and soon the levees at St. Charles were at the point of breaking.
Father Edward B. Schlattmann, pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Church of Portage, sensed the imminent danger. If the levees across the Missouri from St. Charles were to give way, the waters would follow the low farmland and take a shortcut to the Mississippi – and a direct cut through Portage.
He assembled the members of the Legion of Mary at his church and together they prayed that their town be spared.
Shortly thereafter, the railroad levee at St. Charles did break and a huge wall of water roared out in the direction of Portage des Sioux, following the ancient route of the Indians. Just a short distance from town, however, the water divided. One arm flowed to the south of Portage and the other arm to the north. Only one farmhouse was damaged. Somehow, a community had been saved.
The community pulled together and decided something should be done to commemorate the event. Initially, Father Schlattmann suggested a simple, bronze plaque. But the community had something more in mind. Led by the guidance and inspiration of Harry T. Bussmann, Jr., plans were put in motion for the Shrine. People from all walks of life donated money, time and labor to the project.
On October 13, 1957, the dream became reality. The white, fiberglass statue, designed by Norma McClory, was dedicated before a crowd of 10,000 people. The 3.000 pound, statue of Our Lady of the Rivers rose 45 feet above the ground. The statue itself was 25 feet tall, mounted on top of a 20 foot concrete pedestal. Its features were soft, its lines were simple. The overall effect was one of serenity. The monument to a memory was complete.
As the years rolled by, the Shrine became more than a monument to a memory. The Coast Guard used it as a navigational aid and included it on all their maps of the Mississippi River. The Shrine also became the focal point of the Annual Blessing of the Fleet Ceremony held every summer to foster safe boating. Finally, the Shrine became a tourist attraction, a place where families could relax and enjoy the incredible beauty and serenity of the area.
Where history and beauty meet.
The Shrine of Our Lady of the Rivers is more than a monument to a memory. It’s also a Shrine dedicated to the rich history and incredible beauty that is indeed unique to the area.
If you walk out the causeway, you’ll see eight plaques, four on each side, that call attention to many of the area’s historical highlights. Included are the story of the three flags; the establishment of the first free school west of the Mississippi; how Portage got its name; the search for the Northwest Passage; the forts and block houses that protected settlers from the Indians; the great Indian peace treaty; the explorations of Pierre Marquette and Louis Joliet; and the establishment of St. Francis parish at Portage.
Woven into the railing which encircles the base of the statue are eight wrought iron symbols. Like the statue itself, the symbols are one-of-a-kind and exist nowhere else. There is a spiritual value associated with each of the symbols – the sun, moon, stars, an escalloped shell, a fish, a lily, a sword, an anchor and a dove. Each symbol is documented by the appropriate biblical reference. Some are nautical symbols, some are derived from nature. All reflect the wealth of nautical beauty and the natural beauty of the area.
The memory is yours.
We invite you to visit the Shrine of Our Lady of the Rivers as often as possible. You’ll find the area has a certain timeless beauty. After all, it’s been more than a half century since the Statue of Our Lady of the Rivers began gazing across the waters. Little has changed. So, stop by soon, relax, enjoy and see things from Our Lady’s point of view.
Keep the memory alive.
Time and nature has its way of taking its toll. The Shrine of Our Lady of the Rivers is certainly no exception. That’s why we’re asking you to keep the memory alive.
The Shrine of Our Lady of the Rivers is maintained solely through private donations. Without the help and contributions of people like you, the Shrine will suffer. So please, give generously.
Join our growing family of members who care. Simply mail your tax deductible contribution to:
Our Lady of the Rivers
P. O. Box 91
Portage des Sioux, MO 63373