A grotto proposed by a Park Hills Catholic church may be too big, some of its neighbors say

Plan as destination for pilgrims also gives pause
Why a church's grotto may be a no-go
Why a church's grotto may be a no-go
Why a church's grotto may be a no-go
Posted at 7:00 AM, Jun 23, 2017
and last updated 2017-06-23 07:00:22-04

PARK HILLS, Kentucky -- A planned grotto is at the center of a rift between a new Catholic church in Park Hills and residents who want to preserve their quiet neighborhood.

Priest and members at Our Lady of Lourdes Church say they want a quiet, meditative space where anyone can come. Opponents say the grotto is too large and that the size indicates the church is expecting lots of visitors.

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For the most part, everyone is OK with the idea of a grotto. There are several nearby, albeit smaller in stature. The Church of St. Agnes, the Sisters of Notre Dame and Covington Catholic High School all have grottos with the Mother Mary. Opponents just want a much smaller footprint that is simply for parishioners.

Social media has not been kind on the issue. Comments on the neighborhood site "Nextdoor" have been cruel and bigoted, say neighbors. Others weren't happy with a response in the church's newsletter that said residents "do not believe the wondrous works of God."

A small grotto at The Church of St. Agnes in Fort Mitchell faces the parking lot and Dixie Highway. (Vickie Ashwill | WCPO contributor)

"It's become hostile," Park Hills resident Sheila Dean said. 

"I've heard ridiculous remarks," said Pam Spoor, a city councilwoman and member of the church. "Someone said they heard it was the size of the Ark (Encounter)."

The planned grotto is designed to be the width of five to six parking places -- about 40 to 48 feet -- and 20 feet high. In comparison, the nearby Devou Park Band Shell is 70 feet wide and 55 feet tall.

"It needs to be relative to a 200-person parish," said Gretchen Stephenson, a Park Hills resident.

Our Lady of Lourdes is a traditional Catholic church following the "Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite" -- services in Latin, liturgy from 1962 and governed by the 1983 Code of Canon Law, according to information on their website. They moved into their space last July.

Parishioners dress conservatively -- dresses below the knees, no tank tops, no shorts. Women also must cover their heads, a practice most Catholic churches in the U.S. no longer follow.

They don't want to be splashy -- in fact, the grotto may be their only grand statement outside the sanctuary, where they've spent upwards of $400,000 to refurbish the building, according to their website.

The hill where Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Park Hills plans to build a grotto. The hill sits behind the church and next to the parking lot. (Vickie Ashwill | WCPO contributor)

Priests at Our Lady of Lourdes say they simply want to build a quiet, prayerful and meditative space in the style of the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes in Lourdes, France. It will have water features, some benches and kneeling rails and a place to light candles, said Father Sean Kopczynski. Costs to build could reach the $1 million mark. The size of the shell is to allow protection from the weather for those praying.

"Here's the frustrating thing for us -- we took every care to make it beautiful. We followed the law of the church and the civil law," he said. "It's kind of mystifying that someone thinks we're going to throw up something ugly."

Some residents have voiced their opposition since the landscape architect, Vivian Llandri of Cincinnati, made an early presentation to the city council in February.

"They're quite clear that it will be a destination for Catholic pilgrims," said Dean. It's on their website that they're expecting people from all over the world, she said.

"The concern is over the magnitude of the project and the plans to as stated by the Lourdes community to expand," she said.

There are pilgrimage sites across the U.S., although not all are grottos. There are two such sites in Cincinnati: The Holy Cross-Immaculate Church known for "making the steps" with hundreds climbing the steps on Easter; and Our Lady of the Holy Spirit Center, which has a reliquary chapel with dozens of relics and meditation garden.

The grotto had more of a band shell look in the original drawings, said Father Kopczynski. "We wanted to have a shell to protect people who want to come and pray, but the band shell look is a little bit much for (the residents), so yes, (the architects) will make it look like a native location."

The church also bought a house next to their rectory to help add parking, said Kopczynski. Covington High School will allow the church to use up to 300 spaces in their parking lot, as long as it's not in competition with their own events.

Those 300 spaces made people more concerned. Why would they need 300 extra spaces, asked one resident who wished to remain unnamed.

Todd McMurtry, city attorney, said the next step is up to the Kenton County Planning and Development Services Commission.

Whether the city asks for a text amendment, which would change zoning citywide for all similar requests in Park Hills, or the church asks for a map amendment, which has to meet existing requirements such as setback and lot size, Kenton County PDS staff has to review the plan before it is sent to the commission, said Andy Videkovich from Kenton County PDS.

The commission will review and listen to public feedback before they make a decision, he said. Any application needs to be to the county by July 6 to be on the Aug. 3 agenda.

The county sends their recommendation back to the city.

"The city has the final say," said McMurtry. "But you can't just say you don't like it."

The controversy may be upsetting for now, but it's just people expressing their political views and exercising their First Amendment rights, said McMurtry.

"You can't discriminate against religious entities, but if (a plan) doesn't work, it doesn't work."