The Grotto at Our Lady of Lourdes Shrine in the New Columbus section of Nesquehoning has been deemed eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historical Places, thanks to the efforts of two women whose childhoods revolved around the stone structure next to the former Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church.
Rose Arieta and Lucille Richmond spent years researching and documenting the origins of the shrine, and its significance to the mostly Italian community whose lives were centered on the church alongside of which the grotto was built.
New Columbus coal miner Placidio Guido LaRizzio built the grotto, at the behest of the late Rev. Agnello J. Angelini, to honor those who served the United States in World War II.
It took LaRizzio four years, but the project was finished in 1945. LaRizzio died four years later. The grotto for decades thereafter was the site of celebrations, including the annual Shower of Roses.
Richmond and Arieta began their quest in September 2009, after learning the grotto could be dismantled. The Allentown Diocese had closed Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, along with dozens of other churches, in anticipation of a shortage of priests.
The diocese still owns the church, and the grotto. The eligibility for listing in the National Register of Historical Places does not infringe on the diocese's control of the structure, but the diocese has not given its consent to have the grotto actually listed.
"The diocese's lawyers are looking into what being listed on the National Register means," diocese spokesman Matt Kerr said Friday.
Although Arieta and Richmond are disappointed that the diocese's delay means their quest has yet to reach the finish line, both say they are just thrilled that the grotto has been accepted as historically significant.
"It's still a win," Arieta said.
"We're happy we got the determination of eligibility. It certainly was a long road, but we're thrilled with the outcome – it's the next best thing to being listed," she said. "Hopefully, at some point the diocese, after they do their research, will think about reversing their decision."
The road to eligibility was long and hard. Richmond and Arieta, working under the umbrella of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, Inc., first contacted the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Harrisburg, which led to Community Preservation coordinator Bryan Van Sweden.
They learned what had to be included in the application, and it was a lot: Photographs, history, culture, ethnic and religious significance. The application also included letters of support from Nesquehoning residents and elected officials.
"The grotto enshrines the community values of creativity and craftsmanship, religious conviction, ethnic tradition, and a sense of family and neighborhood. The grotto is an integral part of the ethnic heritage of Italian-American community of New Columbus," they wrote.
On Oct. 4, the quest took a leap forward when the application was unanimously approved by the state's Historic Preservation Board. The nomination then went to the National Park Service's Keeper of the National Register, in Washington, D.C., for the next step.
The hard work paid off when they learned that on Dec. 19, the grotto was deemed eligible for the national listing.
Richmond said the next step is to have a plaque made to be placed at the site indicating its status. If the diocese forbids the plaque to be placed at the grotto, she and Arieta plan to place it in the park across the street.
The grotto is the first stand-alone structure in the state – and the first in Nesquehoning – to win the designation.