Gail Linville, left, and Mike Zanone, officials of the St. Joseph Area Association, stood by the historical marker for the grotto. Someone complained about the markerís wording, saying it violates provisions in the Constitution for separation of church and state. (Photos by Arza Barnett, The Courier-Journal) The grotto, which was built in 1927, is on the former grounds of the old St. Joseph Infirmary, a Catholic hospital that was razed in 1980.
Friday, January 27, 2006

Grotto marker wording spurs complaint

By Martha Elson
The Courier-Journal

The St. Joseph Area Association realized a longtime dream last year when it dedicated a state highway historical marker for the St. Joseph grotto ó formally called The Grotto and Garden of Our Lady of Lourdes.

But the Kentucky Historical Society has received a complaint about the marker's wording because it refers to a purported appearance of the Virgin Mary in France almost 150 years ago. The complaint said the wording violates constitutional provisions for separation of church and state.

State Rep. Jim Wayne, D-Louisville, who represents the St. Joseph area, yesterday asked Attorney General Greg Stumbo's office for an opinion on the constitutionality of the wording.

The historical society, which is part of the Commerce Cabinet and oversees the marker program, told the St. Joseph neighborhood association last fall that the marker might need to be reworded.

But the association objected to a wording change, saying the story of Mary appearing to a girl named Bernadette is intrinsic to the site's significance. "That's the way the story's been all these years, whether it's fact or fiction," said Gail Linville, the association's president.

The grotto -- built in 1927 -- is on the former grounds of the old St. Joseph Infirmary, a Catholic hospital that was razed in 1980. The University of Louisville owns the grotto property. Volunteers and neighbors had spent several years restoring and maintaining the grotto, and they raised about $1,700 to have the marker made and installed.

The marker says the local grotto is modeled on the natural grotto at Lourdes, in southwest France, "where Virgin Mary appeared to Bernadette Soubirous in 1858." It goes on to say that their statues once adorned the Louisville grotto. The full text of the marker is shown in photos at www.stjosaa.org.

The historical society began reviewing the marker's wording last fall after it received a complaint about it from someone -- the state couldn't provide his or her name yesterday. Historical society spokeswoman Alice Rogers said yesterday that she didn't know the person's name and didn't know if she could release it.

Nelson Dawson, director of research and interpretation with the historical society, has proposed one possible rewording that would call the Lourdes grotto simply "a world famous Marian shrine."

Wayne, a Roman Catholic, said he can understand why the wording issue was raised, because the reference to Mary's appearance "is not a fact" but rather a matter of "faith for some Catholics. It's not a doctrine of the Church." The state cannot be involved in proselytizing or promoting one religion over another, he said.

Wayne asked for the attorney general's opinion at the request of the neighborhood association. The request will be reviewed, said Vicki Glass, a spokeswoman for the attorney general.

Rogers said the historical society most likely will wait to hear the opinion before taking any further action.

Mike Zanone, the St. Joseph association's vice president, said some association members were irate when they heard that the society said the wording might need to be changed.

"It seems like it's taking it to an extreme," he said. "What part do we or don't we include? How much do we edit that story to fit values today?"

Reporter Martha Elson can be reached at (502) 582-7061.

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