Mary Ann Ristow stands next to one of the last remnants of the former Steinthal Valley Lodge—a concrete pillar—while New Holstein High School construction students work on the chapel she envisioned for the property.
Mary Ann Ristow stands next to one of the last remnants of the former Steinthal Valley Lodge—a concrete pillar—while New Holstein High School construction students work on the chapel she envisioned for the property.
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Divine inspiration might be behind a building project being wrapped up by a New Holstein High School class in the Steinthal area.

"It came into my mind like it was sent to me," Steinthal area resident Mary Ann Ristow said of the small chapel which teacher Ted Bonde's construction class is building on the site of the former Steinthal Valley Lodge supper club.

Steinthal is a tiny rural area northeast of Kiel and a couple miles off the beaten path of STH 67. These days it consists of little more than a few houses, but many years ago it had its own post office and a general store building which was a stopping point for travelers. The building later became a supper club, but it burned down in the late 1990s.

Mary Ann lives just a short walk from the site, but her story really begins as a child growing up in Milwaukee. Both she and her brother suffered at different times from serious illnesses; in fact, Mary Ann was given last rites three times during her serious illness.

"My mother was very, very religious and devout," Mary Ann said. Her mother became familiar with the Mary Queen of Our Hearts prayer, and she believed saying the prayer repeatedly pulled her children through each serious illness.

Mother shows her thanks

Her thankful mother had Mary Queen of Our Hearts prayer cards printed to hand out to others, and she also organized donations to have a shrine built in her home church in Milwaukee in 1949.

Mary Ann grew up and eventually was married. One day a friend of her husband's wanted him to take a drive with him to the Kiel area to look at a farm he was considering buying.

"The next day my husband asked me and the children if we wanted to drive uup and take a look at this property for sale," Mary Ann said. "It was miserable weather, April, raining and very foggy, not the kind of weather you would be out looking for a piece of property.

"It was very wet and soggy and so we all had high boots along. When we stopped and asked the farmers permission to walk around, they were very doubtful that someone would even be out in that weather to look at land," Mary Ann said.

"We parked the car and when we all got out, the rain stopped immediately, the fog lifted and the sun came out. We walked up and down the hills for four hours. When we went back to the car, the fog came in, rain began again and it was as dreary as when we began. No leaves on the trees, gravel roads with no signs to anywhere-looked like something from the 'Legend of Sleepy Hollow'," she added.

"My husband said to me, 'I think this is a sign that maybe we shouuld buy the property and move here'."

The Ristows did indeed move their family to the Steinthal area in 1968.

Buying the old general store

They soon became familiar with the former general store building just down the road from their house. The building-originally constructed in 1854-was boarded up in the 1970s, but the Ristows decided to buy it. They were not sure at the time what they would do with it, but they spent two years remodeling it. "It had a lot of history behind it," Mary Ann said, including as a tavern and dance hall. Some big-name bands played there, Mary Ann said.

The Ristows decided to reopen the building as a dinner spot, and later a brother moved up from Illinois to operate the restaurant.

In 1988 the Ristows sold the business to Richard and Karen Holstein, who ran it until 1994. Not able to see the building vacant, Mary Ann bought it back in 1996 with the intent of opening it as a bed and breakfast. Before she could do that, however, Richard and Jean Seider expressed an interest in buying it to again open a

restaurant. They had it for only seven months before it was claimed by fire. Modern zoning laws prevented the building from being able to be reconstructed. Even so, Mary Ann bought the parcel back once again.

A few years later, she returned to her mother's church in Milwaukee to look for the shrine her mother had helped establish. She found it somewhat tucked away in a dark corner of the church. Some church members did not even know the shrine existed, she said.

Trying to buy the shrine

Mary Ann told church leaders she wished to buy the shrine, but once the church discovered the financial value of the shrine they decided to restore it instead. "What I was going to do was accomplished," she said about the renewed focus on the shrine.

Then one day on a walk past the vacant lot, Mary Ann said the idea came to her to build a shrine or chapel on the site. A contractor suggested she contact a local high school to see if a construction class might be interested in the project. Kiel High School's construction class had a full plate, but Bonde and his NHHS class welcomed the idea.

"They're so enthusiastic about it," Mary Ann said of the students. "They're doing a beautiful job."

The building will look like a mini-church, complete with a cross on top and stained glass windows. The crew of about 10 boys started in February, having to shovel off about two feet of snow to get started. Jeff Hedrich directed the pouring of the concrete pad, while Trisha Sabel helped with some of the plans and drawings.

In recent weeks the class has been busy putting on laminated shake shingles. They probably will not have time before the end of the school year to install the wood cedar siding-given that they only have a short amount of time each day to work-but Mary Ann said she is very pleased with what they have accomplished, and she will continue to see the project along.

"I think we all have a purpose in life, and with prayer and faith you are led in that direction even though you may face many obstacles along the way," she said. "I sometimes think that way back many years ago when I was a young teenager very close to death, all the prayers of my mother and her friends to Mary Queen of Our Heartswere answered and Mary asked our Lord to let me live. The only way to hank her is to spread devoritons to her."