This not at all sketchy dancing(?) monk sign was the first thing that greeted my mama and I as we entered the site of the Black Madonna Shrine and Grottos on our second mother / daughter cake hunting adventure.
Despite his rather large head and unusually toothless smile, my mama and I took the sign to be a good omen that we were welcome there and got out of the car to look around and take in the landscape.
Located off the back highways of Pacific, the Black Madonna Shrine and Grottos are a true testament to the dedication, passion and ingenuity of a Polish Brother in the rural hills of Missouri.
Brother Bronislaus Luszcz (amazing name!) came to the United States from Poland in 1937. Inspired by the dedication of those making pilgrimages to the Black Madonna shrine in his home city of Czestochowa, he spent 23 years constructing each scene of the grottos by hand. And let me tell you right now, they are magnificent.
Each scene is made with what is called Missouri tiff rock – shells, colored rocks, geodes and other pieces of costume jewelry and brightly colored glass that are incorporated in such a way that you can’t help but be drawn to them and awed by the way they shine in the sun.
So, with the thought in mind that eventually we’d just naturally stumble upon the cake, my mama and I set out to explore the numerous grottos that cover large amounts of the land around the shrine and even lead up into the surrounding hills.
Once we had had our fill of the beautiful sights, and had sufficiently wandered around aimlessly with no luck finding the cake, we decided to head to the shrine itself and see if we could find someone to help us.
The Black Madonna Shrine is housed in a covered space with chairs for services or personal reflection. At one end of the space is also a gift shop with a small button that said, “Press for assistance.” We were in need of assistance, so we pressed the button.
A few seconds passed when to our right we heard a screen door slam against the side of a house and an older gentleman peer out from the opening. “You all here to see the cake?” he shouted with much more aggression and frustration than we were anticipating.
A little in shock, I managed a vigorous head nod.
The man accepted this answer and started down the stairs. We weren’t sure what to do, so we awkwardly started walking towards him.
When the three of us reached the middle, he, rather gruffly, said, “All anyone ever wants to do is see the cake. No one wants to see the shrine anymore or hear me talk about it.” At this he gave us both a lengthy stare down as if he was expecting us to change our minds and say that no, we didn’t want to see the cake anymore, but yes, could he please tell us about the shrine.
But at this point, my mama and I were both pretty dumbfounded and just stared back at him. The stare down lasted a full minute and only ended because he eventually broke the silence by sighing loudly and starting to walk towards the back of the building that held the shrine.
As we neared the back, we both breathed a sigh of relief as we saw the top of the candle on the cake come into view down a little hill. We thanked him for his help, but he just sort of brushed us off and shook his head while walking away.
Without looking back, we hurriedly took our customary pictures with the cake, still taking time to admire the color on the cake and the muted tones used – the burnt orange played incredibly well against the white accents.
Once our cake-quest was complete, we started back up the hill. At the top, my mama started walking towards the car thinking our adventure was complete, but I started walking toward the shrine. When my mama asked me where I was going, I said, “I’m gonna go in the gift shop and buy something. I feel like he might like us more if I did.”
And apparently, that was the golden ticket to his heart. Once I started looking around at the different trinkets for sale, he became an open book, and we were regaled with his thoughts on the cakes (he did not understand them), where he thought the cakes should be placed (mostly in Pacific) and why the shrine is called the Black Madonna.
That part was actually pretty interesting. Apparently Black Madonna is the affectionate nickname given to the painting that the shrine is paying homage to. She was given this nickname because her skin tone was painted olive to begin with and because over time the painting was exposed to a fire, numerous services where incense was used and the general breaking down of the paint due to age giving it a darker hue. A replica of the painting is what sits in the shrine surrounded by equally stunning mosaics. (PS There’s a lot more to the story of the shrine. If you want to check it out, click here)
So with a new rosary in hand (I had to buy something), my mama and I bid farewell to the gentleman keeper of the shrine and grottos and decided that even though our hearts may have stopped a bit when he yelled at us from his doorway, he made us laugh and couldn’t take away from the breathtaking beauty of the landscape.
Plus, like all the characters I met along the way, he just added to the richness of my cake hunting adventures.