ST. JOHN | A statue of the Virgin Mary in place on U.S. 41 for nearly 60 years was moved Wednesday to the nearby St. John the Evangelist Parish grounds.
Rich Pitcher, who lives across the street from the statue, said he watched early Wednesday as cranes were attached and the Legion of Mary Wayside Shrine was taken to its new home less than a half mile away.
"That's been there my whole life. My dad was one of the ones who helped put the statue there in 1954. ... It's sad," Pitcher said.
Pitcher, 58, said he and his wife, Linda, have seen bikers, truckers and entire wedding parties stop to kneel down and pray or take photos at the shrine on U.S. 41.
"We've seen so much stuff over there. I don't think it will happen with this new statue that's planned to go there. It's just not the same," Pitcher said.
Brad Wachter, a spokesman for Save Our Lady, said his group remains steadfast in its plans to have the statue remain on U.S. 41 even though it was moved without notice Wednesday morning.
The group still plans to file a lawsuit and to go to Catholic Church officials in Rome to have the statue moved back.
"It's sad. I was at the church this morning. I got there in time to watch the process," Wachter said.
Wachter said the move makes his group's plans to seek an emergency injunction a moot point.
"Our plans are to continue down the path we were down. The only thing that's changed is the emergency injunction. The urgency has come off, but we'll see a remedy to have her put back on the original site," Wachter said.
Plans by the parish, 10701 Olcott Ave., have all along been to move the 15-foot marble statue, also called the Great Lady, to the east side of the parish, the Rev. Sammie Maletta said.
Another Virgin Mary statue, Our Lady of the New Millennium, has been outside the church for the last two years.
That 33-foot-tall metal statue will be traded with the Great Lady near the visitors center at the nearby Shrine of Christ's Passion, 10630 Wicker Ave.
Maletta, who could not be reached for immediate comment Wednesday, said plans would go forward whether or not legal action was taken.
Wachter said the Legion of Mary Wayside Shrine was placed along U.S. 41 in 1954 so it could be seen by those of all faiths as they traveled the highway.
Now, at its new location, the statue's audience will be reduced to mainly church parishioners, Wachter said.
The articles of incorporation for the Marian Wayside Shrine Foundation, which has possession of the statue, and a description of the location where the statue would be placed comprise the basis for the potential lawsuit.
Moving the statue would violate those articles, the group says.
The statue has only been moved a few hundred yards, so it will face the church and be in a beautiful setting, Maletta said.
"She's getting a great place of honor. ... We feel this is the best way to serve the greatest number of people," Maletta said.
The move will provide parishioners with better access to the statue, Maletta said.
Wachter, who launched the campaign to keep the statue in place, is the grandson of Frank Wachter, who had the marble statue carved in Italy.
Wachter said the statue originally was donated to the Diocese of Gary and later to the foundation.
"It's not over yet," Wachter said.