WOODSTOCK – The McHenry County Board soundly rejected an obscure French religious order’s request for a conditional-use permit to significantly expand its operations in rural Coral Township.
In a resounding 20-3 vote with no County Board members speaking in support of the project, board members denied the Fraternite of Notre Dame’s request to add a boarding school, nursing home, winery, brewery and gift shop to its 95 acres at 10002 Harmony Hill Road, south of Marengo and Union.
Board members Tuesday evening firmly sided with the Fraternite’s neighbors and the government of Coral Township, both of which overwhelmingly opposed the expansion request.
Six County Board members publicly praised the Fraternite’s work in helping the poor and downtrodden, but said their request was inconsistent with the county’s land-use plans and development ordinances.
“This is a commercial development plopped right into a residential neighborhood,” board member Chuck Wheeler, R-McHenry, said.
But board members’ flattery was not received well by Fraternite members, several of whom lashed out during public comment, calling the vote “religious discrimination” and “hindering God’s work.” One sister told the County Board that the majority “chose Barabbas over Jesus,” referring to the choice by the people of Jerusalem to spare a thief’s life over Christ.
Father Philippe Marie chided board members that their rejection came on Sept. 15, which is the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, popularly imaged with seven daggers piercing the Virgin Mary’s heart.
“You have added the sword piercing the heart of this good Mother,” Marie said.
Fraternite attorney Tom Zanck said his clients would be exploring their options in the wake of the vote.
The County Board first granted the Fraternite a permit in 2005 to build a chapel, convent, monastery and bakery on the property. Neighbors have alleged the Fraternite has not been a good neighbor when it comes to work hours and construction, and said that adding a school, hospice and brewery would make the property an even worse fit for the rural area.
Neighbor Rob Cisneros, who was one of the more visible faces of the opposing neighbors, said he is glad the ordeal is over. Fraternite members routinely accused the neighbors of religious and racial bigotry – most of the order’s works are done in the Austin neighborhood of Chicago.
“I think the County Board was spot-on in keeping it to land use,” Cisneros said. “This was always about land use. This was never about religion.”
Board member Michael Walkup, R-Crystal Lake, called the Fraternite’s expansion request an attempt to “fit 20 pounds of flour into a 10-pound sack.” While Anna May Miller, R-Cary, based her objection on plans and ordinance as well, she said the overwhelming local opposition was too much to ignore.
“I believe we must consider how much opposition we have seen to this proposal,” Miller said.
Twelve votes were needed for approval of the conditional-use permit. Only John Jung, R-Woodstock, Nick Provenzano, R-McHenry, and Michael Skala, R-Huntley, voted yes. After its defeat, a resolution to grant the Fraternite a variance to county building height restrictions was defeated by a 21-2 margin.
Board Chairman Joe Gottemoller, R-Crystal Lake, recused himself from the discussion and the vote – he represented the Fraternite in its successful 2005 quest to build the retreat. Vice Chairwoman Yvonne Barnes, R-Cary, ran the meeting in his absence.
After months of testimony and deliberations before the McHenry County Zoning Board of Appeals, it fell one vote shy of the five needed for a recommendation to approve.
Fraternite of Notre Dame was founded in 1977 by French Bishop Jean Marie, who claims he received divine inspiration from the Virgin Mary to do so to help the disadvantaged. The order identifies as Catholic, but is not recognized by the Vatican.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has since been changed to correct the retreat's address and the list of County Board members who voted yes.