SALEM — For more than 65 years, the 7-foot-tall statue of Virgin Mary has stood in the center of a grotto — some 20 feet above the ground, hands clasped in prayer, overlooking a small patch of grass and, farther beyond, downtown Salem. On a warm afternoon last week it was suspended in midair, silently swinging as a crane operator gently lowered it to the ground.
The process of removing the statue took an hour, and after it was placed in a truck and driven to a nearby studio — where it will be repaired, along with an accompanying statue — the few who watched glumly noted that the statue’s removal marked the end of an era for Salem’s oldest Italian neighborhood.
“This is like a spiritual death,” said Anna Della Monica, whose father headed up a group of Italian masons who built the grotto during World War II to honor the military. The grotto was made from stones collected from nearby Jefferson Avenue, and sat next to the community’s house of prayer, the former St. Mary’s Church.
Longtime residents and former parishioners like Della Monica say the last 10 years have been some of the most trying times in their lives. First, in 2002, the Archdiocese of Boston closed the church, citing a shortage of priests. The decision sparked an uproar among parishioners, who asserted the church was thriving, had a minister, and more than $100,000 in its bank. In 2004, the archdiocese sold the church and the grotto to a homeless shelter, which now has transitional housing and has changed its name to Lifebridge.
For almost 10 years the former church sat empty. A group of local artists and former parishioners led by Salem filmmaker Joe Cultrera sought to buy the structure and use it as an arts and performance center. But in the spring the building was sold to Gateways of Peace, a Pentecostal church. Gateways has infuriated neighbors by painting over the church’s elaborate frescos and removing the marble altar. In early May, two men with ties to the Gateways church were charged by Salem police with malicious destruction of property over $250 after one of the statues in the grotto area was broken in half and thrown into a nearby dumpster. In addition, police found a blue tarp covering up the Virgin Mary statue, and also saw that the words “Ave Maria” — Latin for “Hail Mary” — had been painted over on a rock.
The Gateways of Peace church members, Luis Morales of Salem and Korvachei Hernandez of Peabody, appeared at a hearing in Salem District Court late last month, and the case has been moved to a trial. In the May 5 police report, the men admitted to the charges, but said they thought the property belonged to the Gateways church. The church’s pastor, Juan Reyes, did not respond to interview requests from the Globe.
The grotto area — which has remained largely unchanged in the decade since St. Mary’s closed — will be used in the future by Lifebridge, which still owns the property and plans to create a vegetable garden to grow food for the estimated 7,000 meals it prepares each year. “If we can grow some produce it will help, plus it will give the folks here something to do. They can work it, they can help weed it,” said Lifebridge executive director Mark Cote.
Meanwhile, Cultrera, who made a film about St. Mary’s closing, has raised some funds to have the two statues moved and repaired. At this point, he is contemplating raising more money — as much as $75,000 — to have the grotto rebuilt at Salem’s Immaculate Conception Church. The Rev. Timothy Murphy, who leads Immaculate Conception, said his church has plenty of grounds for the grotto. “We made a commitment that we would like to have it here,” said Murphy, who noted that the church was also given a wax figure of the Virgin Mary that was blessed by Pope Benedict XV before being brought to St. Mary’s in the early 1920s.
While former parishioners are grateful they have salvaged part of their past, some say they will never get used to a vegetable garden taking the place of an area where they prayed before and after Mass, posed for photos after Communion, baptisms, and weddings, and just felt at home.
“We’re losing our cultural Italian footprint in this neighborhood and it’s sad,” said Bob Femino, a musician who lives near the old church. Femino served as an altar boy at St. Mary’s and is cochairman of the Greater Endicott Street Neighborhood Association, a group that represents the blocks around the shelter and church. He said he would visit the relocated grotto at Immaculate Conception, but added that the whole idea “was a lot to swallow.”
On a nearby side street, Deliana Sanchez paused and watched the statue being moved.
“This is not right,” she said, shaking her head. Sanchez has lived behind the grotto for three years, and she made it a priority to walk to the quiet grassy area each morning. There, she knelt and prayed.
“They shouldn’t be doing this. It’s been there forever,” she said. “Now when I walk there it’s going to feel weird.”