Imagine a knoll overlooking the rolling terrain of farm fields and adjacent woodlots. Notice a chapel sitting on that knoll — a spot it has occupied for nearly 140 years.
Realize that the reason the chapel is there has its roots in a religious tradition and incident that date to the 1300s in central Europe. Mix in the 1870s life experience and contributions of an immigrant from that part of the world.
Fast forward to any July 4 and what happens that day at that chapel — the celebration of a Catholic Mass for crowds of 200 or more followed by a potluck meal provided by area residents.
That's the background for a religious story and tradition that have their origins in the 14th century and that are alive and well in the rural area of west central Manitowoc County.
That inspiration and devotion are most evident today in the annual Mass celebrated on the Fourth of July at the Lax Chapel that overlooks farmland and woods in the very rural town of Eaton about three miles southwest of St. Nazianz, which has a rich religious history of its own.
Sitting just off Lax Chapel Road, between Manitowoc County highways C and X, the chapel is a "thank you" from 19th century immigrant Frank Lax, who constructed it on his farm to keep a promise he made to the Blessed Virgin Mary shortly after recovering from a serious illness while he was pioneering to establish a home and farm for his family.
Lax, who arrived in the United States in 1871, credited his near miraculous recovery to intercession by "Our Lady of Loucim," who was revered in his native Bohemia following incidents there in the mid-1300s. Loucim is a village in Bohemia near the border with Bavaria (part of Germany) in central Europe.
Before he came to the United States, Lax venerated the Virgin Mary at a shrine in Loucim that was drawing thousands of visitors per year. Called the New Church of the Sacred Blood (Neukirche Heiligenblut in the local German language), this shrine was created in the wake of the persecution of Catholics in the area during the 1300s.
That persecution was led by John Huss, whose followers also threatened to destroy the shrine that contained a wooden statute of Our Lady of Loucim, which depicted the Blessed Virgin Mary holding the child Jesus.
According to the historical account, the village priest directed the parishioners to move the statute to a protective niche in a large linden tree in a nearby forest. However, Etibor Krcma, who was one of Huss's followers, learned about the hiding of statute.
When Krcma tried to cut off the Blessed Virgin's head with his sword, blood immediately flowed from the gash he had made in her face. Krcma tried to sink the statue in a nearby pond, but it continued to resurface with the blood still flowing.
After the statue had been returned to the spot where it had been hidden, Krcma saw it there with blood still covering the face. He quickly asked for forgiveness, repented and dedicated the remainder of his life to being the sacristan at the village church.
Our Lady of Loucim appeared in the United States in the form of a replica of the original 21/2-foot statue Frank Lax placed in the chapel he had begun to build in 1875. It is not known how he acquired the statue that stands above the altar in the chapel today. Its distinguishing feature is the placement of a sword across Our Lady's face.
In the succeeding years, Lax Chapel became an attraction to visitors who offered their prayers to the Blessed Virgin. Masses were also celebrated frequently in the chapel, including on or around the July 2 feast of the Visitation, which also honors the Blessed Virgin Mary.
By the early 1900s, Lax's son, also named Frank, enlarged the chapel in order to accommodate the increasing number of visitors. After that project was completed in 1910, the Lax family expended extra effort to keep the chapel open at most times.
This continued after the second Frank Lax died in 1934. Today, his grandson Jim, who lives on the adjacent fourth-generation farm where a small herd of beef cattle grazes, and his brother (another Frank), who lives several miles away, maintain the tradition by hosting an annual Fourth of July Mass and by having the chapel open on weekends during part of the year or by appointment.
The interior of the chapel is adorned with statues, plaques with the Stations of the Cross and religious illustrations with wording in German. A lace hanging profiles the structure of the chapel.
For this year's Fourth of July mass, attendees began to arrive an hour before the 10 a.m. service. By the start of the Mass, more than 100 vehicles were parked along Lax Chapel Road and over 200 people of all ages had gathered.
It was a quiet, sun-filled, pleasant morning on which birds could be heard chirping in a nearby woods. Beef cattle grazing in a pasture a few hundred feet away stopped for a few minutes to peer at the commotion taking place around the chapel. The sweet smell of hay drying in the adjacent field drifted across grounds as the annual celebration was held.
The Mass was celebrated by Salvatorian Father Patrick Nelson, who is the pastor of St. Gregory Parish at St. Nazianz. A co-celebrant was Father Hiermonk Maximos of Holy Resurrection Monastery, a Byzantine Catholic community affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church. HRM established a community in St. Nazianz nearly three years ago.
With its 13 pews that can seat a maximum of four persons each, the chapel can accommodate only a portion of the crowd for the annual Fourth of July Mass. But most attendees are content to occupy the benches that surround the chapel for the occasion or to use their own chairs. Some people sit in the farm field outside the wooden rail fence that surrounds the chapel.
For the Mass, the chapel's pump organ is moved to the outside lawn next to one of the chapel's six windows. The organ was played by St. Gregory parish member Jane Schaller, who noted she's been doing so for 30 years at the Fourth of July mass.
A choir from St. Gregory parish assembled around the organ to lead the songs. Large boxes of hymnals were brought to the chapel for the Mass, and loudspeakers were set outside. This year's choices of Marian devotion hymns included "Immaculate Mary," "O Most Holy One," and "Hail Holy Queen Enthroned Above."
At several points during the Mass, Father Nelson held a microphone into the window to catch the music from the organ and the singing of the choir. Electric power for the occasion was provided from a portable generator that was set up about 100 yards away at the edge of the hayfield.
In his homily, Father Nelson talked about peace, freedom, liberty and justice, describing how they are essential to democracy, community, parish, nation and the world. In tune with that spirit, St. Gregory parishioners treated the Fourth of July visitors with a potluck meal that included cheese, watermelon, beverages and a huge array of desserts this year.
A recent development indicated the Our Lady of Loucim tradition that covers more than 600 years is still vibrant — the presentation of a second replica of the statue to the St. Nazianz Historical Society, for which Schaller serves as the secretary and treasurer.
An 87-year-old Wauwatosa resident, Lee Thompson, donated the replica that had been in his family for more than 140 years. That 16-inch replica, made of linden tree wood, was brought to Wisconsin by his great, great grandparents, who emigrated from Bavaria in about 1870.
The best available information indicates this statue was carved by a member of the Weber family, who were wood carvers at Neukirchen. If so, it was carved either by Jacok Weber, who lived from 1786 to 1856, or his son Georg, who lived from 1823 to 1899.
Thompson kept the statue with him, often stored in the attic in a Sears Roebuck box, as he moved 20 times during a 43-year career with the company. He learned about the replica statue at the Lax Chapel by reading a newspaper article in 1984.
The replica statue Thompson donated is kept at the historical society for 364 days a year. It was on the altar at the Lax Chapel for the annual Mass on July 4.