Eighteen years ago, rural Nebraska artist Sondra Jonson of Cambridge created the “Rachel Weeping for Her Children” bronze sculpture at the Fatima Shrine in Arapahoe. In this Nebraska Rural Living essay, Sondra shares her thoughts about the shrine and sculpture that draw visitors off of Highway 6 & 34 and what it means to her legacy to have been involved with this project.
To be Part of Something Big: “Rachel Weeping” and the Fatima Shrine
By Sondra L. Jonson,
Nebraska Rural Artist
Today, I was helping clean and wax the life-size bronze sculpture, “Rachel Weeping for Her Children,” at the Fatima Shrine in Arapahoe. It is now 18 years since Bishop Bruskewitz dedicated “Rachel.” She sits in the southwest corner of the Shrine grounds, in a private circle of tan brick pavers, pine trees, lavender bushes and wrought iron benches. There she is, wrapped in a cloak of sorrow and yet of hope. Drenched in loss and emptiness. Surrendered to the only One who can help her now.
Before I ever moved to southwest Nebraska 22 years ago, the Fatima Shrine caught hold of me. Driving down Highway 6 and 34, there it was like an oasis tucked into anonymity … on the west side of little St. Germanus Catholic Church. The church was closed when I stopped, but the Shrine is never closed. It beckons.
Even a seasoned journalist might have trouble explaining what exactly draws people to this simple, rural Nebraska shrine. Is it the Mary statue raised high against a backdrop of soaring, evergreen cedar trees? Is it her beautiful face looking down at us, tilted slightly to the East, her praying hands tilted slightly to the West? Is it the rejoicing angels standing at some distance to her right and her left? Is it the kneeling children spread out in a circle below with their scattered farm animals – the reverence of the children, their silence? Is it the hedge that one must walk through to enter into this sacred space of intimate communion between Mary and her little ones? Is it the flowers, the plantings, the low stone walls with conch shells and colored stones resting on top – all reminiscent of the loving hands that care for this shrine?
Is it the silence that surrounds one who enters this space? Is it the engraved stones that tell the history of Fr. Henri Denis and his torments in the Dachau death camp, his miraculous rescue attributed to the Blessed Mother? Is it the lingering memory of all the individuals young and old, the church groups, civic groups and businesses that worked together to help the passionate Fr. Henri create this Shrine to the Lady who saved him from the death sentence? Is it the echo of thousands upon thousands of prayers whispered here over more than half a century? (Parishioners say that not a day goes by without visitors to this shrine – they come from throughout our state, throughout the country, and from all over the world.)
When I enter the Fatima Shrine, and every time I enter it, and wander through the paths between the kneeling children and lambs, when I look up at Mary, her face bent toward me, I am nothing but a fallen woman, a lost soul. All my possessions evaporate – everything that props me up is gone: all my triumphs and my failures, my personal ambitions, my pride, my ambitions for my children, my hopes for our society and my fears and anxieties, too. Everything has vanished, and I am stripped. And yet, in what I can only describe as an inscrutable mystery, when I am in the shrine, my heart fills up with peace. It feels like the planet has shifted and shaken itself loose of all the falsehoods that weighed it down. And I leave with that peace clinging to me. It’s difficult to push the gas pedal up to 65 mph, when I want to just drift home on the quietness I feel inside.
Creating “Rachel Weeping for Her Children,” for the Fatima Shrine was one of the greatest privileges of my life as an artist. I have little money to leave my sons, but I leave them “Rachel,” the mother of the Old Covenant (my personal heritage), kneeling before Mary, the mother of the New Covenant and of mankind forever.
I leave them this sculpture – reflecting a woman who is united with all the suffering and all the tears of the human race, a woman whose hopes have been crushed and whose heart is as empty as the blanket draped over her arms, yet who lifts her open hands in complete abandonment to the One, the only One, who can fill the abyss of her soul. Rachel under the mantle of Mary, at the Fatima Shrine.