HEREFORD — It was the place where they wanted to be on Christmas Day.
Two friends from Marana and a young family from Hawaii were among the first visitors who made the trek to the foothills of the Huachuca Mountains Wednesday to reflect at the Our Lady of the Sierras Shrine (Cerro de la Virgen).
A cold, raw wind accompanied a light rain on the steep road to this mountainside chapel flanked by a wooden, 75-foot-tall Celtic Cross and a 31-foot-tall statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary on South Twin Oaks Road. But that did not deter these early visitors who began arriving just before 10 a.m.
Sarah Merino, an Arizona native who now lives in Oahu with her husband, D.J., and their two sons, said the shrine holds special meaning for her.
“My husband proposed to me here,” she said. “We wanted to come up here and show it to our sons.”
Merino, who was visiting family in Sierra Vista for Christmas, said she first showed the shrine to her husband years ago when he came to visit her. Later, when D.J. Merino returned in November 2006 while on leave from the military, he took Sarah back to the Shrine and asked her to marry him.
The Merinos had not been back to Our Lady of the Sierras since the Monument Fire in June 2011 damaged part of the chapel and some of the surroundings. The shrine was repaired, though, and Sarah Merino said it looked beautiful. Her boys, ages 7 and 10, were excited to climb the stone steps on the mountain where the stations of the cross are located. There is also a 10-foot-tall statue of an angel called the Angel of Revelation.
Marana residents Joe Camarillo and Jon Mize had to see the Shrine on Christmas Day, too. Like the Merinos, Camarillo and Mize had not been back to the Shrine since before the fire.
“It looks terrific,” Camarillo said, standing inside the small stone chapel. “We came here because of the holiday. I have an adoration for our Blessed Lady of the Guadalupe. I know that her image is here, as well, and I wanted to see that.”
Camarillo said he and Mize wanted to get away from the Tucson area for a couple of days and made the road trip to the shrine.
“It’s very spiritual, very peaceful, very calming,” Camarillo said. “It’s a nice place to come meditate and get away from it all.
“I’ll probably say a little prayer and hang out a little bit,” he added.
Outside gazing at the cross and the Virgin Mary, Mize echoed his friend, saying the shrine looked “unchanged” after the blaze, which ignited in Coronado National Forest and ultimately scorched about 29,000 acres in the Huachuca Mountains.
“To me, it’s a very sacred space,” Mize said. “It’s perfect for meditation and prayer.”
But the shrine’s beginnings were far from calm and peaceful.
According to its website — ourladyofthesierras.org — Chicago couple Gerald and Patricia Chouinard went through several trials and tribulations before they were able to complete construction of their vision.
The pair visited relatives in the area in 1987 and became enamored with their surroundings — the area where the shrine now stands — while they were hiking near Ash Canyon. The Chouinards purchased eight acres in the area in 1988 and hired an architect to draw up plans for a unique hillside home.
In 1990, the couple traveled to Medjugorje, Yugoslavia, on a religious pilgrimage with others from their community. While on their trip, they were impressed by a large stone cross atop Mt. Kriscivac. They returned to Arizona in late 1990 and their house was finished in 1991. While the residence was being built, Gerald Chouinard decided he wanted to build a large cross facing the valley below, like the one he had seen in Yugoslavia. Patricia Chouinard, meanwhile, wanted a statue of the Virgin Mary.
Besides the obstacles they had to overcome with county government, they were also opposed by residents in the canyon who were against building anything that did not fit the area’s aesthetic. After much red tape with local government officials and legal battles with their neighbors, the Chouinards prevailed and construction began in 1997.
As far as the people who visited on Wednesday were concerned, the shrine and the joy it has brought them was well worth the struggles to create it. As Camarillo took photographs of the Christ painted atop the altar in the tiny chapel, he smiled and said he had gotten everything he wanted for Christmas.
“I’m standing here,” he said.