Righting America

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A Tale of Two Sites: The Creation Museum and Maria Stein Shrine of the Holy Relics | Righting America

by Peter Cajka

This week we are featuring a series of posts by our colleague Dr. Pete Cajka, Postdoctoral Research Associate the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism, University of Notre Dame. He is an intellectual and cultural historian of the twentieth century United States with interests in Catholicism. He received a PhD in American religious history from Boston College in 2017. His dissertation is entitled, “Rights of Conscience: The Rise of Tradition in America’s Age of Fracture, 1940-1990.” He has published essays in American Catholic Studies and Ohio History, and he has a forthcoming article in US Catholic Historian. He received a Dissertation Fellowship from the Louisville Institute for the Academic Year 2016-2017.


Presuppositions – our initial, core intellectual commitments – matter. The founders of the Creation Museum presuppose that the bible tells the real story of the earth’s creation. A commitment to this idea underwrites the museum’s exhibits, dioramas, displays, and films. The clarity of the bible also guides the political aspirations of the museum to wage a culture war against “Godless America.”1

Travel just 130 miles north of Petersburg, Kentucky and you will find the Maria Stein Shrine of the Holy Relics. The shrine opened its doors in 1875, and though it has far fewer visitors that the Creation Museum, it is also a key religious site of America’s Midwest. The shrine’s founders and the subsequent generation of custodians and devotees have very different presuppositions than the evangelicals and fundamentalists to their south who frequent the Creation Museum. The Catholics at Maria Stein assume that it is good to be in the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, or in the company of the saints. Presence enhances the efficacy of prayer. The importance of presence – the physical presence of saints’ bones – defines Maria Stein.

The upcoming blog posts in this series place the two sites in a comparative framework, despite the divergent presuppositions outlined above. Both sites are involved in the “formation” or “constitution” of their visiting subjects. Both sites draw upon the religious vitality of America’s Midwest. The Creation Museum and Maria Stein both have bodies on display. Both sites struggle with dilemmas of reading, interpretation, and message control. Each has a vision of politics in the modern world.

What follows in this series, then, is the tale of two religious sites. Both sites draw visitors into a built environment, constructed to affirm the presuppositions of each group. But one site used the bible as its blueprint and the other site is in the “presence” of the saints.

I. Museums and Shrines

The Sisters of the Precious Blood, the founders of the Shrine of Holy Relics, arrived in Ohio in the 1840s. Priests fleeing the Risorgimento and the Kulturkampf brought relics to the Midwestern United States throughout the 1870s and 1880s, entrusting them to women religious like the Sisters of the Precious Blood for safe-keeping. Gradually, over the last two decades of the nineteenth century, the sisters turned Maria Stein into an important place of devotion and adoration for fellow Catholics.  Over one thousand relics – including the bones of St. Victoria –have come to rest at Maria Stein. Visitors today can also visit a Heritage Museum found on the building’s second floor.

Both the Creation Museum and Maria Stein feed off the robust highway system of the modern United States. Both sites are in reach of highway 75, a major north-south thoroughfare, by way of some of its major tributaries. This land, a corridor that stretches from northern Kentucky and western Ohio, has been fantasized about by Catholics and Protestants in widely divergent ways. Protestants like Lyman Beecher worried that “Papists” would settle the American West – a fear that German Catholics like those who founded Maria Stein stoked. Catholics imagined the American Midwest as a “safe house” where religious objects and artifacts could be protected from the violence that wracked Continental Europe in the wake of the French Revolution.  

We begin by drawing an obvious distinction: whereas the Creation Museum claims to be a museum, Maria Stein is today a hybrid site of both reliquary and museum. The shrine of the holy relics opened its doors in the late nineteenth century and the Heritage Museum its doors in 2015. This initial observation raises two questions. First, how would the combination of reliquary and museum shape a visitor’s experience?

Photo of the reliquary at the Maria Stein Shrine with various statues of the saints and relics situated in an ornate shrine surrounded by red candles.

Reliquary at the Maria Stein Shrine of the Holy Relics. Copyright: Maria Stein Shrine, 2017

Subjects are invited to pray and learn while on site. The kneeler positioned in front of the reliquary at Maria Stein beckons visitors to bend their knees in prayer. The rows of flickering candles between supplicant and relics helps silent intentions offered at the reliquary to endure after the worshipper departs.

Second, would a physical space set aside for prayer help a visitor reflect critically on an institution’s message? The choice the Creation Museum wants its visitors to make (to be with the “inerrant word” or against it) offers little room for worship or prayer. Some visitors to Maria Stein have ventured to this specific place to adore the relics. The adjacent museum would help them to foster a dual identity of learner and supplicant. Such a dual identity is not what the developers of the Creation Museum had in mind.

This quick comparison highlights the absence of a space at the Creation Museum set aside for prayer. While the space at the Creation Museum itself would not make it impossible for visitors to offer spontaneous prayer (perhaps in the parking lot or silently whilst in an exhibit), the absence of contemplative space demonstrates further the intention of the site’s architects to impress a particular worldview on its visitors. The absence of a space to pray has implications for the “constitution of the subject.”  The teleology of Graffiti Alley and the excessive signage encourage acceptance rather than reflection. Prayer or reflection might destabilize the site’s message.  The visitor to the Creation Museum might have to head for one of the gardens to escape the bombardment of information.

In tomorrow’s post, we’ll explore further the distinctions in the designs of the Creation Museum and Maria Stein and the significance of these designs for visitors’ experiences in each space. 


1 On the importance of presuppositions in Evangelical history, see Molly Worthen, Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism (Oxford, 2014).