Marengo area nuns could build expansion under proposed agreement with McHenry County

Religious order, county to receive decision on Fraternite Notre Dame suit

As a years-long legal battle with McHenry County winds down, nuns operating on property near Marengo may soon be able to construct a proposed boarding school, brewery, winery and gift shop.

A public hearing will be held later this month on a proposed agreement that would allow Fraternite Notre Dame to drastically expand its operations on property it owns near Marengo. The hearing will be held at 10:30 a.m. Oct. 21 at the Stanley J. Roszkowski Federal Courthouse, 327 S. Church St., Rockford. Judge Iain Johnston is presiding over the case in courtroom 5200.

The religious group filed a federal lawsuit alleging religious discrimination against the county in 2015 after officials barred its request for a conditional use permit to carry out plans 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.

The proposed agreement states that the county imposed a “substantial burden” on the organization’s religious exercise. The denial of the permit also wasn’t the least restrictive means of furthering any compelling government interest, according to the agreement.

Under a proposed settlement, the group would be allowed to construct a 15,000-square-foot, one-story barn-style building to be used for canning and the production of beer and wine; a 5,000-square-foot gift shop to sell pastries, religious articles and its homemade alcohol and a proposed boarding school. The group must hold off on the nursing home for at least three years after the agreement is approved.

Production traffic from the barn will be limited to four vehicles, controlled by the organization. Outbound production vehicles are limited to a 26-foot box truck, under the proposed agreement.

The three-story boarding school would serve up to 80 children in kindergarten through grade 12 and have a maximum footprint of 28,000 square feet. The building would have separate dorms for boys and girls, under the proposal.

At least 60% of the property would remain undeveloped open space. The organization won’t be allowed to construct any new access roads, but can pave the gravel access point off Harmony Hill Road to improve access to the boarding school, under the proposal.

Fraternite Notre Dame isn’t required to begin construction within a specific time period but must finish whatever it starts within five years. Construction must begin once a building permit is issued, under the proposal.

The organization also would agree not to request permission to construct or operate a nursing home on the property for three years, under the proposal.

The organization alleged that the county discriminated against it as a religious institution and violated the Equal Protections clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act and the state Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The board said the decision was based on the belief that the proposed expansion would not be a good fit for the rural, agricultural area.

McHenry County first granted the organization permission to build a chapel, convent, monastery and bakery on the property in 2005. Neighbors have complained about the operation, and more than 800 people signed a petition opposing the expansion in 2015.

County records show that the organization acquired more property near Marengo in 2017.

Fraternite Notre Dame was founded in 1977 by French Bishop Jean Marie, who claims that he received divine inspiration from the Virgin Mary to help the disadvantaged. The order identifies as Catholic, but it is not recognized by the Vatican.

McHenry County Board Chairman Jack Franks declined to comment on the matter.

Written comments on the proposed agreement must be received by 5 p.m. Friday, reference Case No. CV 50312 and be mailed to the clerk’s office for filing at the following address: USDC Clerk’s Office, 2nd Floor, 327 S. Church St., Rockford. 61101.

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