One recent weekend, my wife and I went for a long, aimless drive north and west of Dallas. Our trip took us to Bowie, where we had lunch at the Armadillo Grill, and then along a nearly deserted back road west to a the little town of Windthorst.
As we approached Windthorst, we noticed an imposing building, five or six stories tall, looking completely out-of-place amid the scrub and barbed wire and one-story buildings along the road into town. My immediate take on the place was that it was a church, but it was far larger and more impressive than most churches in tiny Texas towns. Windthorst, I think the sign at the edge of town indicated, only has about 500 people. This building was a church for many more, it seemed to me.
The street leading up to the building had been newly paved, or paved anew; it was dark black with freshly painted white lane markings. I noticed as we approached the building that there was a grotto or a shrine near street level, just to the right of the stone stairway leading up to the entrance to the building. Signs around the building clarified what this place was: St. Mary’s Catholic Church.
Interested in the story of the place, we pulled up and parked near the grotto. I saw an inscription in Latin that intrigued me, so I made note of a phrase from it: “Ora pro nobis.” I saw nothing else that told the story, so I decided to make a few notes and look into it later, after we got home.
According to an article in Wikipedia, St. Mary’s Grotto is an outdoor shrine paid for with money sent home by 64 Windthorst military service members during World War II. All 64 service members returned home, the article says. An article in the Handbook of Texas, published by the Texas State Historical Association, says the town’s population reached a high of about 1,000 in 1977, but has now dropped below 500.
But what interested me was the inscription, and for some reason a specific part of it: ora pro nobis. The phrase is a Latin invocation used in various Catholic services. Literally, it translates into “speak for us” but its use in the church has taken on the meaning “pray for us.”
As I read more about the phrase, I tried to recall the context of the ora pro nobis in my note. I think I recall Sancta Maria being part of the sentences in which the term ora pro nobis was embedded. And the more I found online in my odd little search, the more I decided the entire inscription must be this:
Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, ora pro nobis peccatoribus nunc et in hora mortis nostrae.
Or, in English:
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.
I wonder if the service members who paid for the shrine with the money they sent home knew what it was they were paying for? I can only imagine these people, who were thousands of miles from home in the midst of what they probably perceived as a battle for humanity, must have wished for help.
One day I will return to Windthorst to verify the entirety of the inscription on the shrine. Something about the shrine and the church, such large beacons in such a small town, were appealing to me. Though I generally think the money that goes to build monuments to religion can be far better spent, there are times when I think the comfort those monuments may provide is money well spent, indeed.