A Christ-centered vacation

The Shrine of the Holy Spirit is located on the grounds of the Mansion Theatre in Branson.
The Shrine of the Holy Spirit is located on the grounds of the Mansion Theatre in Branson.

BRANSON, Mo. — Nestled in the heart of the Ozark Mountains is the southwest Missouri city of Branson. Despite its modest population of only 7,500, this small town hosts nearly 8 million visitors a year.
Key attractions include Silver Dollar City theme park, the Historic Downtown district and 50 live performance theaters that together offer more theater seating than Broadway in New York City.
The area also offers beautiful lakes and resorts, shopping, camping, hiking, golfing, museums and much more. Yet what may be most interesting about Branson is not its attractions, but the experience vacationers take home. Whether touring the Veterans Memorial Museum or seeing a show at the Branson Variety Theater, visitors can expect a common theme.
“I do believe that Branson, over the years, has continued to have a tourism focus that is built around a set of core principles,” Branson Mayor Raeanne Presley said. She defined these as “faith, family and country.”
“I think our visitors seek entertainment that is family-friendly, that is respectful of faith and talks about how fortunate we are to live in the country we live in,” she said.

Mass for visitors
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This story highlights the first principle. The following offers a variety of ways to deepen your faith on a Branson vacation.

Spiritual Foundation
With all that Branson has become, with its multi-million dollar attractions and the hundreds of celebrities who perform there, many may not realize the popular vacation spot got its start because a Christian minister wrote a book about the hill people who lived there in the early 1900s.
Little was known about the Branson area until Harold Bell Wright published “The Shepherd of the Hills” in 1907, which is based on time he spent with John and Anna Ross at their mountain homestead.
Highlighting their perseverance during struggles that would seem incredible by today’s standards, the book became an instant bestseller.
Today, the Shepherd of the Hills Homestead and Old Mill Theatre is located on the former Ross homestead, off Missouri Highway 76, two miles west of Branson. In the book, their names were changed to “Old Matt” and “Aunt Mollie Matthews.” Their home, renamed “Old Matt’s Cabin” is now on the National Register of Historic Places.
The book, which was translated into seven languages and made into four movies, one starring John Wayne, is now acted out in a play at the Old Mill Theatre, a 2,000-seat outdoor amphitheatre that opened in 1960 near Old Matt’s gristmill.
The evening “Outdoor Drama,” which is offered from May-October, ends its 2010 season Oct. 24. The theater’s other show, the “Sons of the Pioneers” chuckwagon dinner show, which also ends Oct. 24, will be replaced by the “Christmas on the Trail” dinner show and “Trail of Lights,” a drive-through Christmas lights display, from Nov. 1-Dec. 31.
Keith Thurman, night manager and theater director, began working at Shepherd of the Hills in 1967, when he played “Young Matt.” He has directed the play since 1981.
“It’s one of those feel-good stories. It’s good-versus-evil and the struggle that good goes through to defeat evil,” Thurman said describing why the story still has appeal today. “The story obviously is just a pioneer western, but Mr. Wright was a Christian minister and the story has a very deep rooted moral and spiritual message that is as true today as it was 100 years ago.”
To purchase tickets, call (800) 653-6288 or visit www.oldmatt.com.

Christian Theme Park
When people think of an amusement park, they visualize roller coasters, junk food and long lines, but they usually don’t associate this experience with their faith. Yet not only does Silver Dollar City offer Christian-based entertainment, it is considered the foundation of the 50-year-old park’s mission.
The 1880s-style theme park annually hosts Christian events such as “Easter Celebration” (March or April), “Young Christians’ Day” (March or April), “Southern Gospel Picnic” (late August to early September), and “An Old Time Christmas” (November-December).
John Baltes, 63, former general manager and now president of Silver Dollar City Foundation, said these events “are a reflection of the heart of this company.”
“Young Christians’ Day” is a nondenominational event during which speakers “try to reach young teens with a message of Christ,” said Baltes, who attends St. Agnes Catholic Church in Springfield, Mo.
“An Old Time Christmas” includes a live nativity show. “It’s done to remind folks that Christ is in Christmas. When you look at some of the ways it has been diminished over time by saying ’Happy Holidays,’ this is a very bold statement about Christmas,” Baltes said.
In addition, the park’s Wilderness Church offers a Sunday morning worship service, and hymns are sung at different times throughout the day, any time the park is open, he added.
“Branson itself has staked out a place of being very Christian-oriented in its shows, so to a great degree, people come here because they already know what the product is,” Baltes said. “They already experience it, not just at a theme-park, but in the businesses that are in this entire Ozark Mountain region, and that spills over, not just in the shows, but also in the restaurants and the hotels. So you get this Christian culture because that’s who the area is, and that’s who we represent.”
The Herschend family opened Silver Dollar City in 1960. Today, Herschend Family Entertainment owns 24 themed entertainment properties in nine states.
For more information or tickets, call (800) 831-4386 or visit www.silverdollarcity.com.

Staging the Bible
The Bible comes to life at Sight & Sound Theatres. The company, based in Strasburg, Penn., built its newest 2,000-seat theater in Branson in 2008, where it has been staging “Noah: The Musical” ever since.
This massive live production tells the story of Noah’s Ark from Genesis 5-9. Noah and his family build a 40-foot high ark into which they march 75 live animals. The stage alone totals 300 feet in length including the main stage and two side stages that wrap around the theater, creating the effect of the audience being inside the ark. The show runs through Oct. 16.
The theater’s Christmas show, “Miracle of Christmas,” begins Oct. 30 and runs through Dec. 31. It tells the story of the Annunciation of Mary through the birth of Jesus (Luke 1-2). In addition to these shows, the theater offers a “Behind the Scenes Tour”through Oct. 8. “Noah: The Musical” returns March 26, 2011.
In a phone interview with Arkansas Catholic, Glenn Eshelman, founder of Sight & Sound Theatres, said he enjoys watching children’s reaction during Noah.
“They’re just drawn into it, especially when the animals come in, and the ark opens up,” he said. “I watch these children and think, ’Oh my, what a wonderful opportunity to plant these seeds in the hearts and minds of children, especially in the world we’re living in today, where they are just bombarded with so many secular things.”
“I feel in this 21st century whatever we can do to impact people and touch them with the spiritual things of God is probably the most important thing we do in life,” he said.
To purchase tickets, call (800) 377-1277 or visit www.sight- sound.com.

Vision from God
Kansas native Gene Bicknell, an entrepreneur who owns the Mansion and Oak Ridge Boys theaters in Branson, is currently completing what he believes will “be a place of healing.”
The Shrine of the Holy Spirit, located on the grounds of the Mansion Entertainment and Media Center, is a project that began five years ago.
“It was a vision that was given to me. It’s really God’s work; it’s God’s shrine, I’m just the messenger. He even showed me what it was supposed to look like,” Bicknell said.
Dedicated in April, but not yet officially open, the shrine was to be completed by the end of September with the addition of a gift shop and bookstore.
“The mission here is to symbolize one of the Three Persons of God,” he said.
The focal point is a 100-foot high cross in the center, which represents Jesus. Under the cross is a globe, representing the world. Under that is the neck, which flows down into shoulders and arms, like the arms of God embracing humanity, Bicknell explained.
Walls, made of blue stone from upstate New York, flow down from the arms to the ground. In the center is a hexagon-shaped chapel. Inside the blue stone walls around the chapel are Scriptures about the Holy Spirit.
In the 85-seat chapel are dove-painted windows representing the Holy Spirit. A large cross hangs in the center and soft instrumental music plays for visitors who come to pray.
“If you look at the stone, you’ll see it’s bleeding a red substance, and that’s like the blood on the cross,” Bicknell said. The red pigment, which appears sporadically in the walls, is “natural seepage from the stone.”
The chapel may be rented for weddings or other special events. The shrine, once opened, will operate nine months a year and close in winter. For more information, call the Mansion Theatre at (417) 239-1333 or visit www.shrineoftheholyspirit.com.

Voice of an Angel
Visitors to Our Lady of the Lake Church in Branson notice the beautiful voice of Cassandré Faimon-Haygood, 33, when she leads the music at Mass, but they may not realize that church is not the only place they can hear her sing; she also has her own Branson show.
She performs “Cassandré: The Voice of An Angel” three days a week from March-December. The normally 2 p.m. show is one of four at the Americana Theatre located on “The Strip,” a seven-mile-long, two-lane stretch of Highway 76 through Branson. The theater is owned and headlined by her husband, Timothy, his six brothers and one sister, known together as “The Haygoods.”
Faimon-Haygood sings a little of everything in her show: big band and swing, jazz, pop, country, classic rock, Broadway, Gospel and even Celtic songs, all backed up by a 10-piece orchestra. She even offers comedy appearing as “Aunt Erma,” who, wearing a blonde wig, glasses and pink house coat, sings some racier numbers with an exaggerated northern accent.
Her regular show ends Oct. 29. Her Christmas show runs Nov. 2-Dec. 17.
Faimon-Haygood said of all the genres she sings, Gospel is her favorite. Singing in church was how she got started back in Grand Island, Neb. She fondly remembers her parents teaching her and her three sisters to sing at Mass. She began leading the music at St. Leo Church when she was only 7 years old. When she moved to Branson in 1999, she helped with the music ministry wherever she attended Mass and has done it ever since. She met her husband at Our Lady of the Cove in Kimberling City, which is near Silver Dollar City, where she worked at the time.
“I was praying for my husband because I knew God had someone for me that was like me,” she said. “When I started talking to Timothy, I just knew.”
For show times or to purchase tickets, call (417) 339-4663 or visit www.thevoiceofanangel.com.

Mass for Visitors
Our Lady of the Lake is the only Catholic parish in Branson. It falls within the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau, which encompasses all of southern Missouri. Catholicism, a minority in the region, primarily grew in Branson because tourists began coming in the 1920s and needed a place to attend Mass. Father Rick Jones, pastor, said the present church was completed in 2003. It seats 1,200 people, 80 percent of whom are visitors. Four Masses are offered each weekend, including a Spanish Mass.
“We try to be hospitable and welcoming to anyone who comes here,” he said. “The Gospel tells us to welcome the stranger so I think that’s what the parish does.”
Addressing his “parishioners for the day” Father Jones asks visitors to help his parish continue its ministry of hospitality. For parishioners alone, the debt to pay off the $6-million building is overwhelming, so he invites visitors “not only to pray with us, but also pay with us” to meet the $20,000 monthly mortgage.

Click here for the Catholic Travel 2010 section index.

Tara Little

Tara Little joined Arkansas Catholic in 2000 and has served in various capacities, including production manager and associate editor. Since 2006 she has managed the website for the Diocese of Little Rock.

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