Faith, hope energize Our Lady of Guadalupe

The pavement zigzags gently but assuredly uphill, past spindly trees, rustling branches and the occasional chirping bird. The din of car traffic fades with each twist of trail, although the distance walked is only one-half mile.

The first thing I do, after opening a tall and polished brass door, is look up. The ceiling is full of one person’s vivid, colorful and optimistic perspective of life after death. This is heaven, and the message is jubilant, especially with the approach of Easter and spring’s promise of rebirth.

The ceiling mural often gets overlooked, a staffer told me minutes earlier, because people are too eager to see what lies behind Door No. 2.

What she doesn’t mention is the small pedestal in a corner of this entryway, which holds a notebook of handwritten messages.

“For educators and students, that they may always pursue truth,” I read.

“Please pray for the women who are pregnant but are not thinking of motherhood,” writes another.

“For all the U.S. troops in the field, may God protect them and help them always do what’s right.”

“Bless all I love … and please send me my soulmate.”

“Help us appreciate and protect your creations.”

“To cure my cancer, I pray to the Lord …”

I am here, this first time, as a harried writer and curious tourist. But the little notebook makes it clear that others make the trek with heavier hearts, hoping and trusting that their deepest wishes come true.

This is the hilltop church at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, two miles south of La Crosse. The religious site was only an idea 10 years ago. Today it is a pretty set of buildings and nature trails on wooded property that rises above nearby highways 14/61.

Our Lady of Guadalupe, a well-known religious image in Mexico, depicts the mother of Jesus and the icon also encourages religious pilgrimage.

Regardless of how you view Catholicism, or how you define what is holy on this Earth, the shrine’s 70 acres feel sacred and thick with angst or anticipation. On the grounds are quiet trails that concentrate on Catholic teachings relevant to the rosary and stations of the cross.

Benches overlook coulee country and are plentiful, so there is no need to rush. The Shrine Church (whose largest worship area seats 400) is not the only place for personal contemplation; one of the first buildings within eyesight is the limestone Votive Candle Chapel, in which more than 500 cobalt blue candleholders are arranged as an indoor pyramid, surrounded by stained glass windows.

Dedicated in December 2008 was the Memorial to the Unborn, whose plaques explain the Catholic stance on stem cell research, contraception and abortion. Work on the Shrine Church began in 2004, and the building was dedicated in 2008.

The biggest surprise on the shrine’s grounds is Culina Mariana (Mary’s Kitchen) Restaurant, whose selections demonstrate a zest for artistry, gourmet flair and creativity. The business earned a Best of La Crosse award for catering in 2008.

Sun-dried tomato basil bread held an array of raw veggies, a sprinkling of sunflower seeds, slice of cheddar and herb cream cheese. I matched that with a hearty meat/potato soup whose long-simmered stock was rich, flavorful and far from humble in character.

Flatbread pizzas, burgers stuffed with smoked gouda and bacon, salads with ethnic themes (Mediterranean to Thai) and pasta entrees make up the bulk of the menu. Soups are from-scratch recipes, and remarkable bakery/bread items also are made on the premises. Think fat cookies for $1 and six-layer carrot cake.

So my assumption that “Catholic café” meant simple fare in a clean but stark setting was busted quickly, which maybe means that I’ve been on one too many religious retreats. Expect serene surroundings, a cathedral ceiling that soars, lots of sunlight and gorgeous bluff views at Culina Mariana.

Another surprise: Beer, wine and cocktails are served whenever the restaurant is open.

For more about the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, 5250 Justin Road, La Crosse: www.guadalupeshrine.org, 608-782-5440. The Shrine Church is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, and Mass is conducted at 11 a.m. daily, except Sundays, when worship begins at 9:30 a.m. (Latin Mass) and 1 p.m.

An Easter egg hunt for ages 14 and younger begins at 11 a.m. April 12. Religious conferences and other special events are scheduled during the year.

Culina Mariana serves meals from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., then beverages and desserts until 4 p.m. Call 608-788-8400 with questions. Sunday brunch is especially popular, and reservations are advised.

A gift shop sells religious items, some of which comes from Mexico City.