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Road Trip: The Land Of The Cross-Tipped Churches

There's a section of Northwest Ohio where the flat rich farmland is poked by a series of church steeples, like push pins marking places on a map. The churches are topped by Catholic Crosses – as they were built by a sweeping German Catholic immigration, which began back in the 1830s. Here in Mercer county, the Convent of Maria Stein is the heart of it all, built by Father Francis de Sales Brunner in 1846. The bishop in Cincinnati at the time was looking for a German-speaking priest to minister to the growing German Catholic population.

"The making of vestments was one of the ways we supported ourselves," says Sister Barbara Ann Hoying. "And they designed the symbols and transferred them onto the material after they punched holes on the thin paper and transferred onto the material with that blue stuff."

Father Brunner originally thought that support for the convents could come from begging - but Ohio wasn’t having that. So he bought land, recruited young women from Europe and built self-sufficient enclaves separately for men and women. Maria Stein, which sits on 60 acres of land near St Johns, became the Mother House of the Sisters of the Precious Blood. The sisters farmed, made shoes and delicate lace. They supplied many churches with paper mache statues that look like stone sculpture. Sister Barbara Ann shows us metal presses used for making the wafer like hosts used in the catholic mass during communion.

"It’s like a little waffle iron, isn't it? That’s flour and water. That's the formula. -Unleavened bread -Unleavened bread – flour and water."

The convent had 200 sisters at its height between 1910 and 1920. Now there are four. Most of the sisters are retired and the order has diminished to a great degree, as have many religious orders. There is a Hall of Fame within Maria Stein. It's a bit unsettling, slightly stunning, eerie and inspiring - the shrine of the holy relics. "In the church family, what belonged to a holy person has value to me as sharing that faith and wanting to be where they already are," Hoying says. There are now 1000 relics here, the second largest collection in the country. Relics are mainly small pieces of bone from the saint, but there are also full bones and one full body is represented. "One that I always like to point out is the relic of the true cross, which is up there behind the glass between the angels," says Hoying. "That is a splinter-size relic of the cross on which Christ died. The shrine of the holy relics at Maria Stein is open to the public and sister Barbara Ann Hoying says many come sit pray and leave – and are never counted among the 25,000 organized groups which visit each year. You can download an audio tour of The Land of the Cross-Tipped Churches at seeohiofirst.org. The New Ohio Guide is produced by the Ohio Humanities Council, a state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.