The woodlands nestled in north Macon were once a setting where Jesuit monks and those studying to become priests sought out peace and quiet a century ago.
Throughout the years, as residential and commercial development expanded rapidly north of downtown, part of the property that had served as a sanctuary for those monks remains mostly untouched. And Macon-Bibb County Mayor Robert Reichert's plan is to preserve the property, which includes one of Macon's hidden gems: The Grotto.
Reichert's family has purchased 31 acres surrounding The Grotto, a stone replica of the French cave where a peasant girl once claimed to have seen the Virgin Mary. The Grotto had been on Historic Macon Foundation's list of endangered properties, called Macon's Fading Five.
"We're trying to navigate a fairly narrow path between preserving and protecting the woodland and these monuments from the Jesuit monks, and at the same time sharing them with people because it is such a treasure," Reichert said. "But when it’s open to the public a lot of times people come in to desecrate it, spray graffiti on it, or worse yet, actually, literally tear parts of it out.
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"We're trying to preserve it, although with limited resources," Reichert said. "The most we can do is ask for people's cooperation."
People interested in seeing the historic structure off Forest Hill Road and the wildlife that abounds are asked to contact the Museum of Arts & Sciences at (478) 477-3232 and get on a list for guided tours. The museum aims to begin tours by this summer, said Susan Welsh, the museum's executive director.
The origins date to 1858, when a 14-year-old girl in Lourdes, France, claimed to have seen visions of the Virgin Mary outside a cave. It was the first of multiple sightings of the mother of Jesus that the Catholic Church later confirmed.
Replicas of the structure were later built around the world.
About 4,500 miles away from the tiny French village, Macon's smaller but similarly designed version was built about four decades later, along with a reflection pool, by people connected with St. Stanislaus College.
The school was situated at the intersection of Vineville and Pio Nono avenues.
"As a way to have peace and tranquility and a place to meditate, they bought this property out here that was about 150 acres," Reichert said. "They would walk from Stanislaus College out to this property."
"After the college burned (in 1921), the decision was made to pull out and not rebuild the college," Reichert said. "Therefore the Jesuit monks no longer came out here. The improvements they had made including walking trails and Stations of the Cross."
There are also remnants of what were once other religious monuments on the site, although some of the pieces were removed or damaged over the years, including a statue of the Virgin Mary that is no longer there.
There are also questions about the crown jewel, the Grotto, that remain unanswered:
Were there enough large stones in those woods to build The Grotto, or were they brought in from somewhere else? And what is the significance of the seashells that were placed onto some of the stones ?
The only sign of modernity inside the Grotto are railroad tracks placed between some of the stones to support the arch.
"Whether they made everything on here on site, a geologist would have to tell us that," Reichert said. "You could certainly tell it was handcrafted, no machinery."
The property was originally part of the Creek Nation until 1821, when a woman named Ann Rich took it over after the Native Americans were forcibly removed the area.
There was a period of time that more than 80 acres of land around The Grotto was owned by North Winship, who spent time on the property after retiring as U.S. ambassador to South Africa in 1949.
About three years ago, Reichert's son, Thomas, began telling the property owner about his vision for the property, which eventually led to the Reicherts' purchase.
"Thomas, who used to play in these woods all the time, was desirous in trying to save it," the mayor said.
Another prominent Macon resident interested in the property's history is Chris Sheridan, owner of Sheridan Construction Co.
As a child attending St. Joseph's Catholic School, Sheridan — the nephew of a Jesuit priest — remembers hearing of the Grotto and its surrounding woodland.
But his interest wasn't piqued until his son began playing in the woods where the Grotto is located. Sheridan said he's seen other replicas of the Grotto, but north Macon's version stands out.
Sheridan is trying to get more information about the property from the Jesuit archives in St. Louis, Missouri.
"(A grotto) wasn't particularly unusual, but the whole area is just so pretty," he said. "That was the unique part. The context in which the Grotto sits was really wonderful."
The location holds special memories for lots of folks, particularly those of the Baby Boomer generation. That, along with the historical significance, are among the reasons Historic Macon wanted to save the site, said Ethiel Garlington, the group's executive director.
"We really didn’t know what the answer was," he said. "We thought the best option was for someone to buy it who appreciated the significance. We were thrilled when the mayor and his family stepped up."