SIOUX CITY -- Last year, when nursing homes shuttered their doors and hospitals barred visitors amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Terry Hegarty, executive director at Trinity Heights, said many people came to the inspirational grounds perched atop a hill on Sioux City's north side feeling lost and helpless.
Even though they couldn't visit their sick and frail loved ones, they found comfort sitting in the Divine Mercy Garden, Trinity Heights' newest addition, and praying the Chaplet of Divine Mercy.
"It was a wonderful way for people to have a focus that, 'I can do this for mom or dad or grandma or grandpa," he said.
The Divine Mercy Garden, which is arranged in a figure eight just off the main driveway, features a bronze sculpture of St. John Paul II and a large image of the Divine Mercy, a depiction of Jesus Christ based on the devotion initiated by St. Maria Faustina Kowalska. The nun revealed that Jesus Christ came to her in the 1930s and asked her to spread Divine Mercy. Hegarty said Divine Mercy is a message that "God is a forgiving god. And, if we do come, true in our heart, and pray the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, he will show us mercy when it is our time to face the just judge."
Trinity Heights is Catholic in theology, but ecumenical in intent and appeal.
"You would be amazed at the number of non-Catholics that you find here," Hegarty said. "We are non-denominational."
More than 100,000 people from around the world flock each year to the destination that blends art, nature and the teachings of Christianity.
The Rev. Harold Cooper dreamed of creating a place where visitors could experience the peace that Jesus Christ gives. In the mid-1980s, Cooper, then pastor of St. Joseph Church in Sioux City, and the nonprofit corporation, Queen of Peace Inc., set out to purchase the 80-acre property at 33rd Street and Outer Drive.
Today, pine trees, a pond, stream and two dozen shrines dot the landscape, along with a chapel, gift shop and apartment housing for seniors.
Visitors can sit on benches and admire the 30-foot steel statues of Jesus and his mother, Mary, light a candle in the Divine Mercy Adoration Chapel, or view a hand-carved wood sculpture of the Last Supper.
Immaculate Heart of Mary Queen of Peace was dedicated in 1993. Almost immediately, buses began regularly driving up the dirt road so tourists could get a glimpse of the towering stainless steel statue created by nationally renowned sculptor Dale Lamphere, of Spearfish, South Dakota.
"It's amazing this little place nestled in Sioux City brings so many people from all over," Hegarty said. "Fr. Cooper's vision here with the Immaculate Heart of Mary is where it all started. Once that got out and its popularity started to grow, people started to come. ... Last year was a slower year because we didn't have the bus traffic, but there were a lot of people that traveled; and there were a lot of people that came here because everything else was locked up. Our buildings were shut for a while, but our grounds were still open. They would walk the grounds and pray and visit different shrines."
Hegarty said the Divine Mercy Garden, which wasn't planned, took root in October 2019, when a woman came to Trinity Heights wanting to honor her mother and father with a memorial on one of the benches located on the grounds.
"We went and we found a placed to recognize that on one of our benches; and we came back and we started talking. She asked me what was next on our agenda," said Hegarty, who said Trinity Heights had just added a statute of John the Baptist. "She said, 'If you had the funds, what's your dream?'"
Hegarty explained how Trinity Heights has been the promoter of Divine Mercy for the Diocese of Sioux City. For a number of years, Trinity Heights has held a Divine Mercy Novena every night of the week after Easter and also hosts a celebration the Sunday after Easter.
"Trinity Heights goes farther back with Divine Mercy than that. We have the Divine Mercy Chapel that has a first-class relic of St. Faustina. We actually had a group that went to Krakow, Poland, and brought that back with them," Hegarty said. "Divine Mercy's been one of the ways that we like to assist people in their journey of faith. We like to let them know that that gift is available to any and all who chose to ask for it."
Hegarty told the woman, who just so happened to be reading St. Faustina's diary at the time, that he would like to have a big two-sided mural of the Divine Mercy, which would catch the eyes of visitors as they drove up Trinity Heights' driveway.
"She said, 'I love the idea. I'd like to give you a donation and start this," recalled Hegarty, who said the project just expanded from there.
Hegarty reached out to Lamphere about the possibility of creating a statue of St. John Paul II, who was a promoter of Divine Mercy.
He said St. John Paul II was the favorite pope of many Catholics. In fact, St. John Paul II even visited Iowa in 1979, addressing an estimated 350,000 people, spread out over grassland at Living History Farms in Des Moines. Polish Catholics from St. Francis Parish in Sioux City were among the throng of pilgrims from Siouxland to see the pontiff.
"Without his persistence, probably, (Divine Mercy) wouldn't be this gift that it is today," Hegarty said of the late pope. "He was from Poland, grew up right before World War II, and saw some of the horrors in Poland. Mercy was always front and center with him."
Lamphere, who studied St. John Paul II, went to work on the bronze sculpture in December of 2019. Hegarty said the sculpture was cast in a foundry in roughly 20 different pieces. Then, he said Lamphere took those pieces back to his shop and welded them together into one single piece. The statue, which Hegarty called "a fantastic work of art," stands 7 feet tall and weighs around 300 pounds.
"You would be taxed to go up there and try and identify which was a piece and which wasn't," Hegarty said. "We wanted to get it in before Divine Mercy Sunday, so they brought it in that first week in April and that's when we put it in."
Hegarty described the Divine Mercy Garden as a teaching area, where Catholics and non-Catholics, alike, can learn about Divine Mercy. As they walk through the garden, he said they can read excerpts of St. Faustina's diary, which are printed on little stands.
"We're open for any and all that want to visit. Come and visit. It's a peaceful, quiet place," Hegarty said. "Some people come and they'll just sit and listen to the water and the birds. They just absolutely love the peace."