Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church stands like a sentinel near the Angelini Avenue entrance to the New Columbus section of Nesquehoning.
Its roots are deep: The church, founded in 1913, has been New Columbus' spiritual home. It is the heart of the largely Italian community, and was the site of the annual Shower of Roses festival honoring St. Therese Lisieux, the Little Flower of Jesus.
The Allentown Diocese' decision in 2008 to fold Our Lady of Mount Carmel, along with Sacred Heart and Immaculate Conception, into a new church, St. Francis of Assisi, devastated parishioners. Many fought for years to reverse the decision.
Two of the faithful, Rose Arieta and Lucille Richmond, have successfully sought to have an adjacent grotto – built in 1941 by a young coal miner, Placidio Guido LaRizzio at the request of the late Monsignor Agnello Angelini and evocative of the Our Lady of Lourdes shrine in France – recognized by Pennsylvania as eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.
Now, the diocese may be moving toward further acknowledgment of the church's importance to New Columbus by establishing a shrine to St. Therese within its confines.
The Rev. Francis Schoenauer, pastor of St. Francis of Assisi, read the announcement at Mass last weekend.
"As you know, Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church was suppressed in 2008. Last year, the Congregation for Clergy upheld the suppression but ruled that the church itself remains a sacred place and should be utilized in some way for sacred worship.
"Since there has been a long standing tradition of devotion to St Therese of Lisieux, I have been working with the diocese on developing a diocesan shrine to St. Therese. This shrine would be located in Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church. Working with representatives of the parish community and Msgr. David James of the bishop's office, we are drafting statutes to govern this proposed shrine. When the statutes are completed they will be presented to Bishop (John O.) Barres for his comment and/or approval.
"This is still only a proposal and there is no definite time frame for its implementation," Fr. Schoenauer announced.
"It's only a work in progress," he said in a telephone interview Friday. "There are many details that have to be worked out, and that will take time."
Diocese spokesman Matt Kerr on Thursday confirmed the plans.
"Establishing a shrine to St. Therese at the former Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church is a plan that's under consideration," he said. "This is in recognition of the devotion to St. Therese that is an important part of the history of that parish."
Kerr cited key aspects of the church's life, including the annual Shower of Roses festival that was held each year to honor St. Therese.
"(Fr. Schoenauer's) announcement was made to let parishioners know that's a possibility," Kerr said.
However, he cautioned, "There's been no final decision made yet."
The news thrilled Arieta and Richmond, who worked for years to have the grotto recognized – and protected – for its historical significance to the community.
"We are very excited to hear the news about the former Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church opening as a Shrine Church to St. Therese of Lisieux," the women said in an emailed message to the TIMES NEWS. "It is a wonderful tribute to Monsignor Angelini and the Italian-American community in New Columbus, and of course the veteran men and women of Carbon County.
"It is the feeling of many members of the parish and ourselves that the work we did to have the grotto nominated to be listed in the National Registry, in conjunction with the work over the past four years of the church appeal group, played an important role in achieving the reopening of the church."
Arieta and Richmond also hope the designation would nudge the grotto to be not just eligible, but actually included in the National Register of Historic Places. Because the diocese owns the property, it must grant permission for the listing. Thus far, it has stopped short of doing that, but has not explained why.
"We both hope that in the near future the diocese will allow The Grotto Our Lady of Lourdes Shrine's 'Determination of Eligibility' be changed to 'Listed'," the women wrote.