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Fifty years ago, head groundskeeper Pete Koopmann talked with his bosses at the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows in Belleville about a way to keep his workers busy in the slow winter months.

They came up with the idea of stringing lights on the trees and bushes on the grounds, starting with about 25 strands and a generator.

“I had to decide where to put those on the bushes,” says Koopmann, now 85. “They were real small at the time. We decorated them, and we weren’t sure if it was going to work out.”

The crew got the go-ahead to expand the display and put up about 50,000 lights that first year. It grew and grew, and for the past several years, the shrine has told the story of the birth of Christ with a display of more than a million lights. About 350,000 visitors passed through last season.

Way of Lights, National Shrine of Our Lady of Snows

Kyle Stoff, 15, of High Ridge, talks to Mike Lockhart, of Belleville, about one of the villages in the Lego holiday display during the Way of Lights display at the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows, Friday, December 2, 2016. Photo by Roberto Rodriguez

It’s more than a drive-through attraction: Live animals fill out a Nativity, and camels, donkeys and ponies give rides for visitors. The Gateway Lego Users Group built several displays to fill a room, including a life-size Lego Nativity. Choirs and musicians from all over the area perform in the lobby among decorated trees and wreaths. Families can eat a homestyle meal with a German flair at the restaurant, and kids can make a free craft.

Some of the activities come with a small fee, but groups can easily enjoy an evening together for free. For a donation of at least $15, families can leave with a plush camel from Build-A-Bear Workshop.

“I think one of the main reasons why we do it is it’s a family tradition,” says Mary Agnes Schlather, the shrine’s coordinator of the Way of Lights. “It brings families out there to come out and enjoy the lights. It’s basically a gift from the Oblates.”

All year long, the shrine offers programs for Catholics and devotional areas on its 200 acres. And year-round, volunteers check the lights to make sure they’re working. A professional company now handles the installation.

The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate is the full name of the order of brothers and priests who serve worldwide. The mission of the Way of Lights is more specific.

Way of Lights, National Shrine of Our Lady of Snows

The Way of Lights display at the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows in 2016

Photo by Roberto Rodriguez

“We do it to show our commitment to the general public the retelling of the one story that changed human history: the birth of our salvation and light of the world, Jesus Christ, the son of God,” shrine director the Rev. David Uribe says by email.

He loves hearing stories from people who visited the shrine as children or who return with their families each year.

Uribe says visitors often dump the spare change from their car at the donation hut, but sometimes, other items like earrings also make it into the till. Once, somebody accidentally gave a pair of diamond earrings that went unclaimed for years.

“Although it is a lot of work for the staff and myself, the stories we hear from folks reminiscing of their childhoods at the shrine is a reward for me,” Uribe says. “And to see they do it now for their own families is the point in celebrating this time of year as a larger family — a family of God. We assume the responsibility to continue being that light to other generations of family.”

Koopmann, the shrine’s head groundskeeper 50 years ago, lives nearby and drives through the attraction every year.

“Who would have thought it would ever go over?” he says. “But it’s still going.”

What Way of Lights • When 5-9 p.m. Friday through Jan. 1; outdoor lights only Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day • Where Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows, 442 South DeMazenod Drive, Belleville • How much Free • More info snows.org

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