The Archdiocesan Marian Shrine on North 68th Street has undergone major renovations since 2017. (Submitted photo)

It started with the purple martin birdhouse.

Jeff Nicholson and his wife Roxana live just a few blocks from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee Marian Shrine on North 68th Street. Because of that proximity, over the years they’ve found themselves at the shrine often to spend some quiet time in prayer.

In 2017, Nicholson noticed that “a beautiful purple martin birdhouse on the site that was in great disrepair.”

“I said to my wife, ‘I would really like to rebuild that for them,’” recalled Nicholson, a physician’s assistant who belongs to Christ King Parish. Roxana Nicholson promptly reminded her husband of the long list of projects they needed to complete at their own house, and that was the end of that.

“I let it go,” said Jeff Nicholson. But it wasn’t long before he ran into his neighbor, Peter Keepman, who was looking for an Eagle Scout project to help him achieve the prestigious Boy Scout award.

“I said, ‘Peter, do I have an idea for you,’” said Nicholson.

Soon after, the two of them visited the Marian Shrine, armed with a clipboard and a pencil. The duo made a list of more than 20 items and locations that required repair, rehabilitation or renovation — from statues that needed fixing to limestone that needed power washing, weeds in want of plucking and light posts that had to be straightened.

Nicholson took on the role of fundraising for Keepman’s Eagle Scout project and in 2017, he raised $17,204 — “through lots of small donations, and a few big ones,” said Nicholson. With that money, they were able to repaint old benches and get 11 new ones, acquire a new St. Francis of Assisi statue, repair mortar in the main altar, purchase new American and Vatican flags, as well as miscellaneous garden supplies that were sorely needed, straighten the light posts and wrought iron railing, plant 500 spring bulbs and mulch 20 yards of garden.

Oh, and the birdhouse got fixed, too.

But the Eagle Scout project was just the beginning. A core group of passionate volunteers had emerged around Nicholson and in 2019, they took on a host of new projects, including the building of a new information kiosk and the installation of LED lighting for the entire shrine, with labor donated free of charge by Roman Electric.

So far in 2020, the volunteers — now numbering about 20 or so, said Nicholson — have cleaned the shrine with mold removal chemicals, pruned trees, added five new benches and kneelers along the railing, to name just a few of their projects so far. They also started the shrine’s official Facebook page and provided for the professional restoration of the shrine’s Angel of Peace statue, which was unveiled last month.

The Marian Shrine was built in 1947 in honor of Our Lady of Fatima, and has been owned by the Archdiocese of Milwaukee since 1980, when it was handed over to their care by the Dominican Sisters of the Perpetual Rosary. Nicholson and his fellow volunteers operate under the direction of Dcn. Steve Pemper, who was appointed by Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki to oversee the shrine.

“The grounds have never looked better,” said Dcn. Pemper. “We’ve got a great group of people there who have done some wonderful things.”

One of the volunteers is Maryann Penkal, who tends a small plot on 68th Street that abuts the fence to the old convent. A statue of Our Lady was installed there by longtime volunteer John Duwell, and Penkal’s sister, Julie Busch, would often stop to pray at that statue on her way back from cancer treatments at Froedtert Hospital. Busch had taken it upon herself to beautify the little area, and after her death in March, Penkal and several of Busch’s other friends and family members took it over.

“I feel her there,” said Penkal. “It allowed me a chance to heal through this all.”

Other volunteers share stories that are remarkably similar — they were drawn to the shrine, and the more time they spent there, the more Our Lady seemed to be encouraging them to care for it. And in caring for the shrine, Our Lady has cared for them.

Mira Panella, a parishioner of Three Holy Women, raised her three children just around the block from the shrine. After her husband Rich died of ALS in 2018 following almost a decade of illness, the shrine became a place of solace for Panella in her grief. It wasn’t long before she met Nicholson and learned of Keepman’s project.

“I said I’d like to be a part of that,” she recalled. She is now the volunteer in charge of landscaping. “I was so used to taking care of my husband … and then one day he’s gone. I lived with half a heart. But when I’m at the shrine, I feel so connected to Mary. I’ll never get over losing my husband but she fills my time doing her good work. We’re her worker bees.”

“Mira always says that the more you go, the more Mary will draw you in,” said Tony Zingale, a parishioner of St. Rita Parish who has been volunteering for three years. “When I go down there, I always just look up at Mary and say, ‘What do you want me to do today?’”

“It really jump-started the shrine (in terms of building awareness),” said Dcn. Pemper. “The shrine was very popular back in the 1950s and 1960s, and it kind of faded off in people’s memories. It didn’t go away, but now people are getting a more clear understanding of what its mission is. I see a resurgence — we’re getting more people there now than ever before.”