In aftermath of tragic fire, widow seeks to rebuild shrine

The deadly fire that took the lives of 19 firefighters during the summer of 2013 was sparked when lightning struck near Yarnell, about 80 miles northwest of Phoenix. The fire burned 8,400 acres and devastated seven buildings at the Shrine of St. Joseph of the Mountains in Yarnell. Amazingly, the life-size statue of St. Joseph (right) as well as those depicting the passion of Jesus Christ were not lost in the blaze (CATHOLIC SUN/File photo)
The deadly fire that took the lives of 19 firefighters during the summer of 2013 was sparked when lightning struck near Yarnell, about 80 miles northwest of Phoenix. The fire burned 8,400 acres and devastated seven buildings at the Shrine of St. Joseph of the Mountains in Yarnell. Amazingly, the life-size statue of St. Joseph (right) as well as those depicting the passion of Jesus Christ were not lost in the blaze (CATHOLIC SUN/File photo)

Off the beaten path in Yarnell, Ariz., is a tourist attraction that for more than 75 years has consoled, inspired, celebrated and mourned with visitors traveling through the old mining town.

The Shrine of St. Joseph of the Mountains features life-sized cement statues depicting moments from the Passion of Jesus, which culminates with His Resurrection in bronze.

Built into the hillside between boulders and oak trees during the Great Depression by the Catholic Action League of Arizona, the shrine is like a church without walls.

Unlike other shrines around the world, the Shrine of St. Joseph does not have a Catholic parish or group to care for it.

It belongs to no one and to everyone.

And today it needs anyone, anyone who can donate money to help with numerous repairs on the property. Anyone with carpentry skills to build furniture and structures lost in a fire.

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Shrine of St. Joseph of the Mountains

Send donations to: P.O. Box 267, Yarnell, AZ 85362

website[/quote_box_right]The property once featured seven buildings that included the shrine’s main source of income, the gift shop and retreat center, but they were lost in the Yarnell Fire of 2013.

The wildfire also took the lives of 19 firefighters.

The emotional and spiritual healing from the loss of life that summer will take much longer than rebuilding dormitories or a commercial kitchen, but Maria Luisa Wasson knows the impact the shrine has on the community.

Wasson, who has cared for the shrine nestled in the Weaver Mountains for nearly half a century, said the shrine is a beacon of spiritual tranquility and love.

“This is a special place,” she said, “It’s amazing to see all the denominations come and with people from every social and economic status, but everybody is the same here.”

It was actually the family of Wasson’s late husband, Barnabas “Barney” Wasson, who opened the shrine in 1939 with the help of other Catholic families from Phoenix.

Since his death in February, Maria Luisa has made her own pilgrimage to the foot of the cross, seeking strength to continue and wisdom to know how.

“I suffered the biggest loss, the death of my husband,” she said. “The shrine has been my support and my lifesaver. There is so much to be done that it helps me continue in spite of my circumstances.”

Like most Sundays, Maria Luisa was working in the gift shop the day of the fire. Barney and their three sons watched as a wall of flames came down the mountain, turning a four-hour evacuation into 10 minutes.

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“People were stopping to help each other. The fire was following us out of town,” she said.

Ten days later they returned, sending their sons and oldest grandson to “face the reality.”

There was extensive damage and loss, but Maria Luisa opened the shrine that day and for the past year and a half volunteers from all parts of the state have come to clear paths, pull weeds, clean statues and repair handrails.

“I don’t know how God preserved the shrine. It continues by faith,” she said. “I made a commitment to help the shrine and I told God I will do His work but He has to help me to do my work.”

Maria Luisa is currently waiting for county approval of building permits, but until that time she wants everyone to know the shrine is open and donations will help secure its future.

Getting there is a scenic drive on U.S. Highway 89 about 75 miles northwest of Phoenix. The blue sign off the main road in town points the way to Shrine Road. The trail begins at the foot of St. Joseph, the patron saint of happy homes, holding a young Jesus in his arms.

“I love the shrine so much, I don’t have plans to retire,” Maria Luisa said, “I am willing to do it until the last day of my life.”

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Archived coverage of Yarnell Hill fire

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