Catholic Herald staff
If you are headed to Bayfield on Hwy. 13, it’s hard to miss the Marian shrine just outside of Superior.
That’s where Dave Fritz sells plump, red and green apples from a roadside stand.
“God has left us once again with a good growing season, lots of sunshine,” Fritz said, surveying the start of the annual harvest. “He does the heavy lifting.”
Growing the fruit is a family tradition for 61-year-old Fritz, who grew up in Woodbury, Minnesota, when the 65,000-resident suburb was a farming village with a population of 650.
In one photo, he and his father are selling apples at a Twin Cities farmers market.
“Since I was 6 years old, I’ve been picking and peddling apples,” he said.
The shrine was a later development. Fritz remembers praying the rosary with his family as a child; he’s been wearing a Miraculous Medal all his life.
Devotion to the Mother of God is dear to his heart, something he’s hoping to inspire in passersby and customers. He offers a $1 discount on apples to anyone who walks through the shrine.
“The whole idea of the shrine is, we want people to be more devoted,” he said. “It’s not gonna kill you to say a Hail Mary.”
He even sees the apples, his only source of income, as a means of drawing visitors.
“In the secular world, unless you’re selling something, people have no reason to stop,” he explained.
Fritz is a regular parishioner at St. Anthony, Superior, but he’s a familiar face in many area churches. On any given Saturday and Sunday, he’s leaving handfuls of Miraculous Medals and prayer cards for the faithful.
With fall on its way, Fritz’s orchard is in business. The first crop of apples was ready in mid-August, and he’ll continue selling for as long as the weather and the apples remain.
Early varieties are good for both eating and cooking, according to Fritz, and the fresh fruit is a welcome sight after the long wait from last autumn.
“I’m impatient,” he added.
Fritz’s orchard used to be called Fritz Brothers, and he and his two brothers competed to see who could pick a trailer load of apples the fastest, and who could sell the most at market.
Both of his brothers are dead, and only Fritz manages the operation. It’s not as much fun as it used to be, he admitted: “Now it’s just me against the orchard.”
Fritz renamed the business a couple of years after they died. Fritz Brothers seemed silly with only one brother, he thought. He dedicated the apple business to Mary, and he calls the shrine Blessed Mother Mary’s Wayside Peace Park.
At night, the shrine is lit up – Fritz waited 13 years before hooking up electricity – and during the day, a choir of nuns sing from a hidden compact disc player.
There’s a boardwalk for the Stations of the Cross, and signs and statuary scattered about. On Aug. 17, Mary had fresh flowers for the commemoration of her Assumption on Aug. 15.
The idea to build a shrine came to Fritz in 1990, and for years, he’s devoted any spare money to the effort.
His decision wasn’t compelled by anything supernatural.
“I didn’t hear any voices or anything,” he said.
Mostly, he liked the site, the parity between Hwy. 13 and Mary’s Fatima appearances on the 13th of the month.
He was also influenced by the people he encountered as a janitor at St. Thomas University, the saints he read about in “Butler’s Lives of the Saints” while working overnights in the Archbishop Ireland Memorial Library.
He’s also helped out at several other shrines – Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Crosse, others in Texas and Montana – and noticed the dearth of devotional sites in the Diocese of Superior.
“There’s quite a few nice shrines in Wisconsin, but in this area, not much,” he said.
Fritz didn’t want to take donations for his project. The church has enough needs, he said, and he’d rather seeing the money go toward Catholic schools, the St. Vincent de Paul Society or the many other services in the diocese.
The only problem is finishing the shrine by himself is slow going, and Fritzes don’t generally have a long lifespan. While he’s outlived his brothers, Fritz is afraid if he doesn’t keep at it, he won’t get it done.
“We tend to die young,” he said.
He aims to have the visitor’s center, built from a 1970s geodesic dome kit, open by May 2017. The month marks the 100th anniversary of Mary’s first appearance in Fatima; he’s also built a replica of the arch constructed at the site.
When he’s not working at the shrine or picking and selling apples, Fritz might be en route to Mexico, where he helps at an orphanage a couple of hundred miles south of Mexico City.
A few of the orphans get adopted, Fritz said, but most of the children he sees grow up a little more every year.
The clay crosses ornamenting the dome were fired and painted by the orphans.
“I’m kind of hooked on trying to get down to that orphanage every year,” he said.
He also buys most of his religious articles – statuary, Stations of the Cross and more – across the border. Fritz is planning improvements – and he wants to expand the shrine, move it farther back into the 20-acre lot and build a chapel.
He’s also diversified his fruit-growing operation with pear and plum trees. Squash vines are blooming across a freshly landscaped garden; he’s hoping he’ll have enough to give apple customers a free squash with every purchase.
If Fritz is around when a potential customer pulls up, he’s evangelizing among the apples, discussing the importance of thanking God for one’s blessings.
If he’s away at a farmers’ market, a prominently placed sign offers the same reminder:
“Thank God for all the mountains and the seas, for all the apples on the trees, for giving life to you and me, wherever you may be, thank God.”
Promoting devotion to the Blessed Mother is his ultimate goal, and Fritz hopes drivers passing the shrine will be inspired, if only for a moment.
He said he always feels the wealth of God’s gifts.
“God is always blessing me like crazy,” he added. “He always keeps the blessings coming, so you’re always in a deficit situation.”