Local Government

Marengo area religious order before McHenry County zoning board for expansion

WOODSTOCK – Ten years after getting permission to build in rural Coral Township, an obscure Christian order is back before the county asking to expand.

And the neighbors who opposed the order's original request in 2005 to locate there are back again, in force.

Representatives of the Fraternite of Notre Dame testified Thursday afternoon before the McHenry County Zoning Board of Appeals, asking for a conditional use permit to add a school with dormitory, a nursing home and hospice, another commercial kitchen and a place to brew beer, make wine and hold tastings, plus a gift shop, on its 95 acres at 10002 Harmony Hill Road. The property, which now has a chapel, convent and bakery, is about 3 miles south of Marengo and Union.

About 100 people – the black-clad men and women of the French-speaking order and their supporters, the opponents who made up the largest part of the audience, and several members of the County Board that will have the final say – filled the room during the three-hour hearing.

While the order and their supporters say they are doing God's work, opponents said adding a school, hospice and brewery will make the property an even worse fit for the rural area than they allege it already is.

Neighbors Rob and Laurie Cisneros opposed the original project in 2005, and allege that their concerns about noise and traffic have been justified over the ensuing decade. Besides the noise of the bakery operations, which the sisters use to fund their religious works, Rob Cisneros said that it took them 2 1/2 years just to build the chapel, and that approval of this expansion would result in years of future disruption.

"They are certainly cognizant of their goals, and that single-mindedness doesn't take their neighbors into account," he said. "I'm certain that a building 10, 12 times the size of that chapel could take 10, 12 times as long to build."

The hearing process, which has just started, will resume at 1:30 p.m. April 29. The order, represented by attorney Tom Zanck, still has an architect and an engineer to call as witnesses.

Zanck said in his opening remarks before the zoning board that his evidence will show that the new amenities will have a minimal effect on the area because many of the people who will be working at the school and the hospice – the order's members – already live on-site.

His first witness, Mother Superior Mary Martha, said the school and the hospice will serve 80 and 50 people, respectively. The dormitory would be for weekdays only, and students will return home for weekends, she said.

"We feel it is our duty as religious people to educate the children and give them the best education possible," she told the zoning board.

But audience members during their opportunity to ask questions were unconvinced that caring for children and senior citizens, to say nothing of bringing in the supplies and personnel needed to feed and care for them, would result in a minimal impact. They were preceded by questioning from Steven Cuda, the attorney for Coral Township, which opposes the proposed expansion.

Laurie Cisneros, whose experience in opposing granting the order the original permit prompted her to win a seat on the Coral Township Board, said opponents have collected more than 700 signatures so far on a petition opposing granting a permit to expand further.

Whatever recommendations the zoning board eventually makes will be accepted or rejected by the County Board. Its chairman, Joe Gottemoller, R-Crystal Lake, represented the order back in 2005 and has said he will recuse himself from any discussion and the vote.

Fraternite Notre Dame was founded in 1977 by Bishop Jean Marie, who claims he received divine inspiration from the Virgin Mary to do so to help the disadvantaged. The order is not in full communion with the Vatican.

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