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Journey To The Holy Land — In Indiana

A life-sized scene at The Shrine Of Christ's Passion in St. John, Ind. (CBS)

A life-sized scene at The Shrine Of Christ’s Passion in St. John, Ind. (CBS)

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CHICAGO (CBS)  The noted religious scholar Martin Marty of the University of Chicago Divinity School wrote last week about the 18 percent decline in church attendance over the last decade across all denominations.

His concern is that smaller congregations mean fewer people to keep the biblical stories alive.

Perhaps he should travel less than an hour south of Chicago to St. John, Ind., to see what Shirley and Frank Shilling have done to create their interpretation of the biblical story at the shrine of Christ’s Passion.

Rising out of an Indiana cornfield is a re-creation of the Holy Land designed to provide the visitor with a life-size, interactive journey through the Stations of the Cross.

There are 40 life-size bronze statues depicting the traditional stations. What is not traditional is that the visitor becomes part of the journey.

At Christ’s trial before Pontius Pilate, you can stand next to Jesus.

The project has taken eight years and 80 semi-trucks full of boulders from Wisconsin. It has been hard work, but for the Shillings, it’s the realization of a dream.

“It just kept growing — it’s like the Holy Spirit maybe just kept giving Frank ideas,” Shirley Shilling said. “Things just kept coming to him.”

Down the hill from the cross is the tomb.

No detail has been left out. An abandoned shroud leads the visitor to one last station.

“People generally don’t expect it,” says Father Sammie Malletta, pastor of St. John the Evangelist. “They come out here in this cornfield, and it’s amazing.”

The Shrine is already visited by 150,000 people each year. The Indiana tourism office predicts 500,000 visitors in three years.

To get ready for those numbers, the gift shop needs expanding. Volunteers already number 100. They’ll need more.

The challenge will be to handle the masses and still provide the quiet, spiritual experience the Shillings want, like the Last Supper, where you’re invited to sit at the table and contemplate what it must have been like to be there 2,000 years ago.

The Shrine of Christ’s Passion is open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. It’s free to the public. Click here for more information.