NJ officials say makeshift shrine needs to go

Underneath Route 21 in Passaic, New Jersey, is a chapel with fresh flowers, candles, and images of La Virgin De Guadalupe, Mexico's patron, known to many as the Virgin Mary.

In 2004 the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared to some in a tree trunk on the corner of Madison Street and Hope Avenue. Religious members of the community began gathering at the site to pray. They built a shrine and painted murals.

By 2012 some residents came together and created a nonprofit organization called Mayordomia Guadalupana. The organization said it is responsible for maintaining the site and handling donations.

Passaic Mayor Hector Lora said he received a letter from the state in January that said that it had no agreement with the group or anyone else allowing for the shrine to be here. Lora, who took office in June, told Mayordomia Guadalupana that the religious site is illegal because it is on public property. So it needs a new home.

"The concern has been an issue of public property and private property," Lora said. "For a number of years, almost 10 years, it has been allowed to be there but not lawfully."

The nonprofit admitted the site is not legal but its members are committed to their faith and hope they can work something out with the city. Rene Barrera of Mayordomia Guadalupana said that no authority has said anything for a decade but that the group understands and will respect the law.

Lora said the site has a number of construction violations and said that has nothing to do with religion but about obeying the law.

"What I have requested is that this particular area be placed in an appropriate location where it can be safe, where the freedom and liberty to express their faith and their beliefs, can also be not only protected but people can be held accountable for where donations are going," Lora said.

One option is to move the tree trunk to nearby St. Anthony's Church. But the idea isn't sitting well with everyone. One believer said they don't want the Virgin to be taken away because she appeared here, so this is her home.