Our Lady of the Ozarks Shrine

Our Lady of the Ozarks is a shrine church located atop Mount Gaylor in Crawford County on Highway 71, just south of Winslow (Washington County) and the Crawford–Washington county line. It was organized due to the efforts of a group of women who desired to have a parish for families in the remote area. Established in 1942, it began serving as a chapel for Roman Catholics in the area as well as a popular retreat and annual pilgrimage location for all the state’s Catholics. The shrine was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on May 29, 2019.

Before 1942, the towns in the Boston Mountains did not have a chapel where local Catholics could attend mass—the closest churches being in Fort Smith (Sebastian County) and Fayetteville (Washington County). Since the nineteenth century, priests from these communities would visit homes in the area to celebrate mass “wherever neglected Catholic families may be found.” Two women who owned summer homes in Winslow—Ann Guilliot of Dallas, Texas, and Elizabeth Sublett of Fort Smith—began taking steps toward organizing a parish. They performed a survey of surrounding towns to obtain a census of Catholic families in the area. After presenting their results to Auxiliary Bishop Albert Fletcher of the Diocese of Little Rock, they began looking for a home for their potential parish.

In September 1941, a former nun and teacher from Iowa named Clara Muxen, along with her brother and mother, stopped at Mount Gaylor on her way to Hot Springs (Garland County). She was in poor health and had obtained a dispensation to seek treatment. After having spent some time in Europe for this purpose, she and her family planned to spend time in Hot Springs. Instead, they stayed at the Sky-Vue Lodge on Highway 71 and never made it to Hot Springs. They purchased property on the mountain, where a recently abandoned gas station stood. Muxen offered the station to the diocese as a home for the new parish.  In order to purchase the property, she garnered support from local benefactors and secured a large donation from a former student in Detroit, Michigan, named Helen Keliher. Muxen renovated the station to serve as a chapel and priest’s residence. It was named Our Lady of the Ozarks in honor of the Virgin of the Smile, which was a statue associated with the healing of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, France, in the late nineteenth century. Muxen brought back a small replica of the Virgin from Europe, and Daprato Studios of Chicago, Illinois, created a larger statue of it to be housed in the chapel.

The first mass was celebrated on October 25, 1942, by Father Lawrence Schaefer of the St. Joseph parish in Tontitown (Washington County), who was charged with holding monthly mass at the new mission. He continued these duties until the Reverend Francis Mackin was appointed as the first resident priest in January 1944. Later that year, Clara Muxen donated more land to the diocese to build a new church and rectory. In May 1944, Father Mackin broke ground on the new church, which was to be faced with native stone and hold twenty-three stained-glass windows. The first mass was celebrated at the new church on August 27, 1944, and a new statue of the Virgin of the Smile was unveiled and blessed on the front lawn of the church. The rectory was finished and blessed by October 15, 1944, while the chapel was not yet complete. A twelve-foot cast-stone crucifix was also unveiled on the church lawn in June 1945. Although the church was completed in 1944, the official dedication did not take place until August 25, 1946, after the bell tower was installed. At the ceremony, Bishop John Morris said mass and laid the cornerstone.

In addition to being the only shrine in Arkansas—until the 2023 establishment of the Diocesan Shrine of Divine Mercy at St. Edward Catholic Church in Little Rock (Pulaski County)—and the first in the nation to honor the Virgin of the Smile, Our Lady of the Ozarks gained statewide significance in 1949 when Bishop Albert Fletcher led hundreds of Arkansas Catholics on the first annual pilgrimage to the site. The pilgrimage continued to draw more devotees in the diocese and surrounding states every August around the time of the Feast of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. The shrine also began to draw Catholic tourists from around the country who were making personal pilgrimages. It also quickly became a “mountain resort mission,” hosting many group retreats from within the diocese. Church membership grew at a steady pace. By 1960, about twenty-five parishioners from around the mountainous area regularly attended.

The parish added Our Lady of the Ozarks Cemetery in the mid-1960s. The first person to be buried in the cemetery was Clara Muxen, on April 1, 1966. In addition to the Virgin and crucifix statues, the church grounds also hold statues of St. Anthony, St. Thérèse, and Christ Resurrected. Our Lady of the Ozarks was decreed as a national pilgrimage site and began hosting two pilgrimages each year—held in May and October—despite the original August pilgrimage having been canceled.

For additional information:
Arkansas Catholic Newspaper Archive. http://arc.stparchive.com/index.php (accessed November 2, 2018).

Buchanan, Rebecca. “Finding Miss Muxen.” Washington County Observer, July 11, 2010. Online at http://wcobserver.com/2010/07/%e2%80%9cfinding-miss-muxen%e2%80%9d/ (accessed November 2, 2018).

Kahmann, Mary Ann, and Juana R. Young. In God’s Pocket: The History of Our Lady of Ozarks Shrine. N.p.: 2018.

Our Lady of the Ozarks Shrine. http://ourladyoftheozarksshrine.org/ (accessed November 2, 2018).

“Our Lady of the Ozarks Shrine.” National Register of Historic Places registration form. On file at Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, Little Rock, Arkansas. Online at http://www.arkansaspreservation.com/National-Register-Listings/PDF/CW0392.nr.pdf (accessed June 20, 2019).

David Collins
University of Arkansas at Little Rock


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