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Marian apparition has Alaska connection as statue's history remains a bit of a mystery

By James DeCrane
April 25th, 2008
Catholic Anchor (

TALKEETNA, Alaska (Catholic Anchor) - An unusual figure of Mary stands outside St. Bernard Church in Talkeetna.

Brought to Alaska in 1980s by Father Thomas Powers, the slender statue with outstretched arms remains a mystery to local parishioners.

“For twenty-five years, we didn’t know anything about it,” said pastoral administrator Renamary Rauchenstein.

For many years, the only oddity about the statue was that it was missing a hand, she said.

“Father Powers was always known for saying that we were supposed to be her hand,” said parishioner Suzy Kellard. “We thought she was made that way.”

New revelations about the statue emerged when now retired Anchorage Archbishop Francis Hurley brought a friend of his, Msgr. John Sullivan, up from the Diocese of Salt Lake City. Msgr. Sullivan quickly noted that the statue was identical to one at St. Ann Church in Salt Lake City.

“He told us about a man who lived next door to the church who decided to do a study and find out more about the statues,” Rauchenstein recalled.

She wrote the man, Steve Schaffer, and he revealed a fascinating history behind the Talkeetna statue.

“That was when we decided it was a little more special than we thought,” Rauchenstein said.

Belgian origins

According to Schaffer, the statue of Mary was cast from a Marian statue called Our Lady of Beauraing in Belgium.

Between Nov. 29, 1932 and Jan. 3, 1933, Mary reportedly appeared to five Belgian children in a hawthorn tree in Beauraing, Belgium. In 1949, the Catholic Church officially recognized the Marian apparitions.

In the course of his research, Schaffer learned that during World War II, U.S. soldier George Herter, served in Belgium and brought a piece of the hawthorn tree from Beauraing back with his wife and son. On the journey home, his son became deathly ill from typhoid. The soldier placed a piece of the tree under his son’s pillow and his son was healed, according to Schaffer’s research.

In thanksgiving, Herter cast 50 statues, placing a splinter of the hawthorn tree in each statue and distributed it around the U.S. from his native town of Albert Lea, Minnesota.

Mysterious presence

Schaffer managed to track down the location of six of those statues plus the one in Talkeetna. Five statues wound up in Minnesota including one in a church and another in a convent.

After hearing this story, Talkeetna parishioners decided to pay a bit more attention to their statue.

“We made a shelter to keep the snow off,” said Kellard.

Another man fixed the statue’s broken hand, and a local artist built an encasement for the statue.

How the statue wound up in Alaska, however, continues to baffle parishioners.

“I’ve asked people, but no one knows,” said Rauchenstein.

Parishioners said they hope people in Alaska come see their treasure, and maybe help offer insight into its intriguing history. “It’s such a great mystery of how it even got to Alaska,” Kellard said. “We hope to add to the story and find out!”

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