As World War II raged in 1941, Placidio Guido LaRizzio, 34, already exhausted from a shift in the coal mine, laid the first stones of a shrine to honor the men and women who had joined the military to protect their country. It would take LaRizzio, the son of Italian immigrants, four years to build the Grotto at Our Lady of Lourdes Shrine.
The shrine was created under the guidance of the Rev. Agnello J. Angelini, then the parish priest of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel church in the New Columbus section of Nesquehoning. Over time, the Grotto blossomed as the heart of the close-knit Italian-American community. Built next to the church, it was the focal point of festivals, and a place to pray, celebrate or mourn.
Known throughout the neighborhood for his folk art, LaRizzio died in 1949, four years after the shrine he so lovingly built was dedicated.
On Oct. 4, the Grotto was unanimously approved by the state's Historic Preservation Board for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. The nomination is now headed for the National Park Service's Keeper of the National Register, in Washington, D.C., for further review. A decision is expected by year's end.
Lucille Donahue Richmond and Rose M. Arieta, under the umbrella of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, Inc., applied for the status. Both had grown up in New Columbus.
"We were thrilled to have it approved," said Richmond. "One of the most important reasons to have the Grotto listed as a National Historic Site is to have it preserved so that it will always stand in honor to the veterans who served in all wars, past and present. It will be a fitting tribute to a small town that sent more men and women per capita to fight in World War II than any other town in the United States."
It is the first stand-alone structure in the state to be so designated, said Arieta. It is also the first property from Nesquehoning to be submitted to Washington for consideration.
The Historic Preservation Board endorsed the Grotto for its significance under National Register Criterion A, for Ethnic Heritage, for its association with the Italian-American community of New Columbus and its role in continuing the cultural identity of the community.
"The National Register is a federal program operated within the Department of the Interior, National Park Service. Each state handles the early reviews and preparation of nominations; once approved by the state boards the nominations then are sent to Washington, D.C., for final review, approval/rejection, and listing of those approved by the Keeper's office. Our Bureau's and Board's roles are to provide opinions regarding eligibility; the Keeper makes the final determination on whether a resource should be listed," said April Frantz, Preservation Specialist at the Bureau for Historic Preservation, Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission.
Frantz had good things to say about Richmond and Arieta's work.
"Many nominations are prepared by professional consultants; in this case, the nomination was prepared by two members of the parish without any previous experience preparing a document of this type. It is a challenging task, and they put a great deal of effort into the nomination. Resources can be nominated for a variety of reasons, either for association with a person, or for architectural merit, or for their association with events or trends in our local, state, or national history. In this case, the Grotto was nominated for its association with the Italian-American community of New Columbus, and its role in helping to maintain the identity of that local community," she said.
"The National Register is just one way to recognize the historical importance of a resource; based on the many letters of support received during our review, and the commitment made by the preparers of the nomination, it is obvious that the community is very interested in making sure the Grotto remains an important centerpiece of their community, which we are very happy to see. Listing in the National Register does not result in any restrictions or obligations for private property owners, so listing will not guarantee a resource's future protection. Community awareness and support is much more effective as a preservation tool," Frantz said.
The application process took Arieta and Richmond more than a year, and involved gathering research into the Grotto's history, photographs, news clippings and other information.
It wasn't until she learned more that Richmond understood the importance of the Grotto.
"I don't think we appreciated the true significance until we started our research for the nomination. It was very enlightening and it opened a part of our history that we only had an inkling of," she said.
Richmond and Arieta's mission began in Sept. 2009. The Allentown Diocese had suppressed Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, along with dozens of other churches in anticipation of a shortage or priests. Alarmed by the possibility that the Grotto would be taken down, the women went to work.
"Monsignor Agnello J. Angelini's wish was to have the Grotto designated as a National Historical site and that became the goal," the women wrote in a document about the project.
They contacted the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Harrisburg, which led to Community Preservation Coordinator Bryan Van Sweden.
Van Sweden "was extremely interested with the historical significance of the Grotto and the role it played in the historical culture of the Italian-American community," they wrote.
He directed them to the PHMC website for application forms and other documents. Preservation Specialist Keith Heinrich advised them on the process.
"We took on this enormous task and became 'researchers'," they wrote. "Many hours were spent writing and rewriting the narrative and significance of the Grotto as required on the nomination forms. In addition, other documentation to be submitted were tax maps, USGS maps, photographs printed, numbered and put on a CD in Tiff format, three sets of printed labels and in Excel format on a CD with the names of state, county and local officials who would receive notification of the nomination. Endless emails were sent between us and April Frantz.
"The nomination presented to the PHMC tells the history not only of our Grotto, but of the Italian immigrants who settled in this country in the late 1800s, the history of Little Italy, the move to New Town, now called the New Columbus section of Nesquehoning, Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, the many celebrations with the Grotto as the focal point, and LaRizzio.
"We also had strong support from the members of OLMC, Inc. We received many old family photographs, written recollections of how the Grotto was an important part of their day-to-day lives and lots of moral support along the way. Flowers were also donated by OLMC, Inc. and placed at the Grotto when April Frantz visited the Grotto in August," they wrote.
The final documents were submitted to the PHMC on June 27. Because the Allentown Diocese still owns the property, spokesman Matt Kerr said diocese lawyers would be "looking into the process, how it works and what the Diocese's role in the process might be."
Arieta and Richmond wait patiently for the final decision, confident the grotto qualifies for inclusion on the National Register.
"The Grotto enshrines the community values of creativity and craftsmanship, religious conviction, ethnic tradition, and a sense of family and neighborhood," they wrote in their application. "The Grotto is an integral part of the ethnic heritage of Italian-American community of New Columbus."