Rural northern Lapeer parish unearths rosary walk hidden since the 1960s

Parishioners at St. Mary Burnside Parish in North Branch pose for a photo after a long day hard at work restoring a stone rosary walk that was discovered hidden beneath the grass on the parish's property. The restoration — and discovery — of the path was the initiative of parishioner Margaret Almand, left (wearing black), who alerted the parish's pastor, Fr. Rich Treml. (Photos courtesy of Margaret Almand)

Long-forgotten path reminds parish of its history, dedication to the Blessed Mother: 'It's part of our tradition to honor Mary'

BURNSIDE — Margaret Almand grew up next to St. Mary Church in Burnside, part of SS. Peter and Paul Parish in northern Lapeer County.

Almand, 62, remembers playing in the church yard, running and laughing with her friends along the stones that made up the “rosary walk” at the parish. She and her Saturday morning catechism class would sometimes pray a rosary together on the rectangular stone path that made up the walk.

But over the years, grass grew over the rosary walk and some of the pavers that made up the large circle were moved or fell into disrepair. Many current parishioners who joined the parish over the last 20 years didn’t even know the path was once part of the parish property. Some surmised it was the foundation of a building that was on the property previously.

In early spring, Almand, who had moved out of state after high school but returned to her hometown four years ago, was reading a book on the history of the parish. The book included information about a Marian shrine constructed in 1953 that overlooked the rosary walk and is still there today. Almand read that the pavers in the path were made by members of parish in the 1960s.

The rosary walk as it looked before parishioners restored it. Many at the parish assumed the stone path was the foundation of a building that had been long since torn down until Almand discovered the stones' true origin.
The rosary walk as it looked before parishioners restored it. Many at the parish assumed the stone path was the foundation of a building that had been long since torn down until Almand discovered the stones' true origin.
St. Mary Burnside parishioners spent weeks digging, restoring and cleaning up the grounds.
St. Mary Burnside parishioners spent weeks digging, restoring and cleaning up the grounds.

“When I was a kid, the rosary walk was always there, just part of the church and something I always thought was a neat thing. I’m kind of a sentimental person, and I was interested in the history of (St. Mary) church,” Almand said. “But I was getting sleepy and I put the book away just after I read about the pavers being made by parishioners. The next day I kept thinking about it and decided we need to look into restoring the rosary walk.”

Almand took the idea to the parish pastor, Fr. Richard Treml, and learned that a company was scheduled to remove the stones the very next week. Neither Fr. Treml nor the groundskeeper knew the rosary walk was there. Like others, they thought the stones were remnants from a building.

The work order to remove the pavers was canceled, and Almand began mobilizing a group of parishioners to work on the project. She also went back to the book of parish history she had put down a few days earlier, but she couldn't find the words about the pavers.

“I went back to the part about the shrine, and then I read it cover to cover, and there was not one single word about the pavers,” Almand said. “I thought, ‘I think somebody is trying to tell me something here. I think Mary wants us to pray the rosary.’”

On Sept. 8, the feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the parish rededicated the rosary walk, including a balloon rosary that was released into the sky.
On Sept. 8, the feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the parish rededicated the rosary walk, including a balloon rosary that was released into the sky.
St. Mary Burnside parishioners celebrate the rededication of the rosary walk on Sept. 8.
St. Mary Burnside parishioners celebrate the rededication of the rosary walk on Sept. 8.

In the summer, more than a dozen parishioners came together to dig up the old stones and gather the pavers that had been moved off site. The process took time. Some stones were broken and had to be repaired, including pavers that had been engraved with symbols representing the area, such as wheat and tools. Volunteers took some pavers to be sandblasted with new images or words, including two with the Divine Mercy image. And finally, two benches were placed in front of the statue of the Blessed Mother.

When they started the project, the group expected they would need to have many new pavers made to complete the walk, but as they re-assembled the path on new sand, they were short only one stone.

On Sept. 8, the feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the parish dedicated the restored rosary walk with songs and prayer, cupcakes in the shape of a rosary, and a “balloon rosary” that was released into the sky.

“This project has allowed us to revisit the history of the parish. Our parish is almost 175 years old, and this was a part of us that had been forgotten,” Fr. Treml said. “Now a new generation of people can pray on the rosary walk.”

Brenda Turner, 66, remembers the rosary walk, too. Her grandfather, Charles Nellenbach, constructed the original path in his role as groundskeeper after he retired from being a dairy farmer. She grew up on that family farm, which was her great grandfather’s, four miles from the church. Like Almand, Turner recalls walking around the rosary path after Mass and the important role the rosary played in her family.

Etched into the stone pavers are symbols and images related to the mysteries of the rosary. The parish hopes the newly discovered path will give glory to God and encourage future parishioners to honor the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Etched into the stone pavers are symbols and images related to the mysteries of the rosary. The parish hopes the newly discovered path will give glory to God and encourage future parishioners to honor the Blessed Virgin Mary.

“My father said three rosaries every day, often in the field when he was working,” Turner said. “He worked so hard but he would never work in the field on Sunday. It taught me that we need to set aside time for prayer and step away from the busyness of the world.”

When her father passed away last year, his casket was carried out of the church, past the rosary walk and to the cemetery across the road. Earlier this month, she thought of him at the dedication of the rosary walk.

“When they released those balloons in the shape of a rosary, I had a feeling that all the things I was holding in my heart were lifted up to heaven,” Turner said. “What more could we do that would be more precious in life than to bring a smile to the Blessed Mother’s face and her son’s by praying the rosary?”

Almand believes the parishioners who worked to install the original path more than 60 years ago wanted to honor the parish’s namesake. She hopes the rosary walk will inspire people to pray the rosary for years to come.

“It’s part of our church. It’s part of our tradition to honor Mary,” Almand said.

Visitors are invited to pray at the rosary walk and Marian shrine at St. Mary Burnside, 5622 Summers Road, North Branch. Mass is celebrated at the church every Sunday at 9:30 a.m.



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