A little known, but must see attraction in Yarnell, AZ., is the Catholic Shrine of Saint Joseph of the Mountains. We were the “accidental tourist” discovering this special place on our drive to Prescott.
The life-sized pieces are set among an oak tree-shaded area amidst the boulders. Visitors can take a trail through the stations of the cross to see the statues or meditate in its beautiful park – like setting. A word of caution to the physically disabled or the elderly…there are many steps involved on the trail and one is at a higher altitude here so some breathing difficulty could be experienced.
In 1939 the Catholic Action League of Arizona commissioned Felix Lucero, a Native American from Colorado to create the Stations of the Cross, in the Weaver Mountains, about a half-mile west of Yarnell. The Stations of the Cross in Yarnell is impressive and in a beautiful setting. This hillside shrine has a chapel, the Way of the Cross, replicas of the Garden of Gethsemane and the Last Supper.
The history of Felix Lucero is quite interesting.
As Felix Lucero lay dying on a World War I battlefield, he reportedly proposed a deal with the Virgin Mary: let me live, and I’ll spend the rest of my life creating Christian art. Mary agreed, Felix survived, and he returned to America.
Several years later, Lucero finally started to make good on his promise. He drifted into Arizona during the Depression and he finally settled in Tucson in 1938. His home in Tucson was a plywood and cardboard shelter built under the Congress Street Bridge. He was homeless, just living a few feet from where the park holding his sculptures in Tucson now stands. He began sculpting Christian statues, molded from damp sand, reinforced with debris recovered from the Santa Cruz riverbed, covered with plaster. The amazing thing was that this young man had no formal training in art, but despite this lack of formal training, his figures have a majesty and realism that people can immediately relate to and feel some of the deep bond that Lucero felt with God.
Felix Lucero was a truly a starving artist.
Lucero’s technique was not devised for longevity, and all the pieces are damaged or in distress. The skin of crucified Jesus is flaking, and the noses and fingers of Jesus and several of his Last Supper meal-mates have been smashed.
The statues acquired the name Garden of Gethsemane and suffered “the ravages of time, floods, and many acts of vandalism,” according to a plaque at the site. “Heartbreak and pain walked with the artist during his sacred efforts.”
Felix Lucero died in 1951, but his sculptures have survived, thanks to sweat and cash from the residents of Tucson. The statues have been moved several times to save them, and frequently repaired after vandalism (in one incident, a total decapitation at the Last Supper). They now stand in a roadside park shaded by palm, pepper, and mesquite trees — close to where Lucero lived under the bridge. The sculptures in Yarnell are in much better condition as Lucero sculpted all of the work out of reinforced concrete.
Sadly, when we visited the Garden of Gethsemane there were a couple of homeless people wandering about the garden with their meager bags of possessions nearby…but then again, Lucero was homeless when he did these sculptures.
Yarnell is located on the Highway 89, Scenic Route to Prescott, Arizona. The garden of Gethsemane is at 602 W. Congress in downtown Tucson.