BUTTE, MONT. — When you travel though Butte, where two freeways — I-15 and I-90 intersect — it pays to look upward.
Looming approximately 3,000 feet above the city on its east ridge is a magnificent 90-foot statue of Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ,
Our Lady of the Rockies is America's second-tallest, behind the 151-foot-tall Statue of Liberty.
Worldwide, Wikipedia ranks Our Lady as the 73rd highest statue and about 40 feet shorter than the very famous 130-foot-high Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
It is the largest Madonna in North America and the fourth-tallest statue of the Virgin Mary in the world.
"Our Lady" sits a top the 8,510-foot elevation Saddle Rock Peak in the northern Rocky Mountains, though undoubtedly many motorists/visitors never notice it.
"It's hard to see at times," Candace Hecker, office manager for the Our Lady of the Rockies gift shop in Butte, said, noting that many drivers likely don't spot it.
"It's easiest to see at night, when it is lit up," she said. "How did I miss it?" is a comment she often receives through e-mails or telephone calls from sad visitors who missed seeing it, but heard of its presence later.
Our Lady of the Rockies is entirely nondenominational and was dedicated in 1985 to workers and women everywhere — especially to mothers.
Butte was an area hard hit by copper mine closures in the early 1980s and this Madonna was believed to be one way to lift the spirits of the residents.
The statue, which weighs some 80 tons and sits on a 425-ton base, has done just that. It rallied the community together.
"The economy has turned around somewhat," after the statue was erected, Hecker said.
She also said that it has changed some resident's attitudes for the better.
Some Butte residents have told her that the statue is a comforting icon and one they are always glad to see on the mountain top.
Hecker said she hears many favorable comments about Our Lady of the Rockies.
"It engages people," she said.
The statue required six years of hard work, mostly by volunteers. Today it is sustained by a foundation.
Butte resident Bob O'Bill first envisioned a statue of Mary in Butte. His wife was seriously ill with cancer in 1979, and he promised the Virgin Mary that he would create a 9-foot statue of her in his yard if his wife recovered. She did, and with the help of many others, the Madonna upgraded to a massive community project.
Laurien Eugene Riehl did the engineering work.
The 12-mile dirt road to the mountainous perch, which crosses the continental divide seven times, had to be cut. Funds were raised through various projects.
The statue's base was poured in September of 1985 and the four sections of the statue were lifted by helicopter into place on Dec. 17, 1985.
Made of 16-gauage steel, the statue was originally planned to be 120-feet high, but the Federal Aviation Administration required an approved, blinking light on top for anything over 90 feet in height. Hence, it was shortened, though its hands and head are larger than they should be — in line with its original 30-foot taller height.
"The Lady of the Rockies is huge, but from Butte, looking across the toxic open pit lake, she is just a white nub along a rocky ridge," RoadsideAmerica.com, a U.S. travel guide, states. "Get up close, though, and she looms 90 feet, the largest Virgin Mary statue in North America."
The website also reports that the statue's internal structure is actually an upside down mine shaft. Since the statue was built by miners and shafts were all they knew to build, that's the statue's main support.
A group from St. Ann's Catholic Church in Salt Lake made a summer pilgrimage to the Madonna statue some years ago.
"The statue is something to see," Carmen Mancuso of Mancuso's Religious Goods gift store in Salt Lake, who went on that trip, said.
Bus tours from downtown Butte are available by reservation every June to mid-October to the mountaintop and base of the statue. Tours leave daily at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. and last just over two hours. Adult cost is $15, seniors $13, teenagers $11 and children $7.
Butte is located 425 miles north of Salt Lake City. You need binoculars or a telescope to see the Madonna clearly from the Butte area below. A good viewing spot is located below I-15, near 2100 Continental Drive in Butte, and northwest of the intersection of I-90/I-15. It also requires a telephoto lens to take a detailed photograph from the valley below.
For more information, go to: www.ourladyoftherockies.org.
To make tour reservations, call 406-782-1221 or 1-800-800-LADY.
The Our Lady of the Rockies gift shop is located in the Butte Plaza Mall, 3100 Harrison Ave,