Genoa Township, MI

Lawsuit: Genoa Twp. Demanded Our Lady of Grace, Padre Pio Be 'Cleansed' From Catholic Campus

Joseph Serwach

Genoa residents fighting Roman Catholic Prayer Chapel — and separate plans for a Chaldean Catholic retreat center

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A 2020 Mass at the Padre Pio campus in Genoa Twp., Michigan.Photo by Joseph Serwach.

In a two-front war, Genoa Twp., Michigan, faces a federal civil rights lawsuit from the Roman Catholics for violating religious freedom as residents simultaneously battle plans for a nearby Chaldean Catholic Retreat Center.

“Our strong conviction is that this is an unjust decision and that it infringes on our religious liberties,” Jere Palazzolo, President & Founder of Catholic Healthcare International, wrote in an email to supporters Thursday.

He added: “They have also sent a sign ordinance and accessory building violation notice regarding the mural of Our Lady of Grace and some prayer and meditation trails.”

The suit filed June 2 in the U.S. District Court for Eastern Michigan alleges Genoa Twp. ordinance officer Sharon Stone and other township officials demanded Catholic Healthcare International “cleanse the CHI Property of anything religious,” including a mural of Our Lady of Grace, the Stations of the Cross, and signs featuring Padre Pio.

“This case represents the hostility Jewish and Christian groups now face in America,” David Yerushalmi, co-founder of the American Freedom Law Center, argued in the 36-page federal lawsuit. “When Jews or Christians seek to modestly employ their religious liberty, they are subject to unlawful denials and restrictions. The last refuge of liberty must be the courts.”

The suit charges township officials violated the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (protecting freedom of speech and freedom of religion) and the Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, the Michigan Constitution, and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

In 2020, Catholic Healthcare International paid $7,792 in Genoa Twp. property taxes and is still required to pay taxes “even though the Township will not allow Plaintiffs to engage in their desired religious exercise on the CHI Property,” the suit adds.

“The Township’s denial was based upon amorphous, subjective considerations that were contrary to the facts and which permit an anti-religious/anti-Catholic animus to drive the Township’s decision,” attorney Robert Muise added.

Township trustees voted last month to block a small prayer chapel and hiking trails from the 40-acre campus.

Third case of Genoa Twp. vs. Christian Churches since 2015

Genoa Twp. officials and residents have complained about other religious organizations as well:

  • In 2015, the township board denied a special use permit to the Brighton Church of the Nazarene, blocking a Christian school from operating within the Church. The Church sued.
  • On Wednesday, the Genoa Twp. Planning Commission (which approved the Roman Catholic chapel blocked by township trustees May 3) tabled a request from the Chaldean Chaldean Catholic Church to build a 28,000-square-foot retreat center and dorm at its Our Lady of the Fields Camp on Kellogg Road. The Chaldean Catholics already operate a campground on the property that includes cabins, a banquet hall, a beach, and a shrine.

In both the Roman Catholic and Chaldean Catholic Church proposals, neighbors are opposing more traffic and visitors to the sites.

However, the Catholic Healthcare International lawsuit stresses traffic counts on Chilson Road are currently half what they were before a new Latson Road/Interstate 96 interchange was opened: “the total daily counts between 2002–2012 were averaging approximately 5,055 cars per day, while between 2014–2019, the counts were averaging approximately 2,542 cars per day.”

“It should be noted that the construction of the Latson Road interchange to I-96 began in the fall of 2012 and was completed by the end of 2013,” the suit stresses. “The daily car count over these two spans of years shows that the average daily traffic was nearly cut in half after the construction of the Latson Road interchange was completed.”

The 40-acre Catholic Healthcare International Property site has been owned by the Roman Catholic Church for decades and is zoned for residential or park use (a smaller park is nearby) and allows religious uses, attorneys Robert Muise, Kate Oliveri, and David Yerushalmi argued.

Township trustees rejected a small adoration chapel (replicating one built by Padre Pio, also known as St. Pio of Pietrelcina) on a 5–2 vote. The plan called for building a small 6,090-square-foot chapel and 38 parking spaces on the 40-acre campus, using no more than five acres of the 40-acre site.

Township Clerk Polly Skolarus warned trustees, “it’s a reasonable application… If they don’t get what they ask — it’s like other churches that we’ve had before our board before — and what they’re going to do is sue us.”

The new adoration chapel, when completed, would join a new natural outdoor prayer grotto supported by prayer groups worldwide. Still, township residents have even complained about the grotto, saying it could attract “busloads of Catholics” from outside the area.

Cardinal Burke: ‘It will be built”

In 2019, Bishop Earl Boyea of Lansing and nationally-known Cardinal Raymond Burke blessed a Catholic Healthcare International plan to bring St. Padre Pio’s idea of “faithful Catholic healthcare” to America.

Last week, Burke blessed the Padre Pio site and celebrated Masses at nearby Holy Spirit Catholic Church near Brighton and Masses in Jackson and East Lansing.

“It will be a wonderful thing when the chapel is built — and it will be built,” Burke said at Holy Spirit.

Boyea gifted the site, between the growing Brighton and Howell communities, to the St. Padre Pio group. Livingston Catholics have been actively involved with the effort, already praying at the site and walking its wooded trails.

The Genoa Twp. Board of Trustees, responding to “not in my backyard” neighbors who prefer the land remain undeveloped, voted down plans for a small adoration chapel (replicating one built by Padre Pio, also known as St. Pio of Pietrelcina) on a 5–2 vote on May 3 after every other public board approved the plans.

“There are two Protestant churches located near the CHI Property,” with the same zoning, attorneys charged. “Chilson Hills Church is approximately 2.1 miles south of the CHI Property… Liberty Baptist Church is approximately 3.0 miles north of the CHI Property, and it too is located on Chilson Road.”

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