Padre Pio prayer site organizers sue Genoa Township over land use denial

Lansing Bishop Earl Boyea celebrates Mass at the site of a planned adoration chapel dedicated to St. Pio of Pietrelcina -- better known at Padre Pio -- in September 2020 on a 40-acre site in Genoa Township. The proposed project was rejected by the Genoa Township board of trustees after residents’ complaints, but the project’s organizers aren’t giving up. (Courtesy of the Diocese of Lansing)

Group seeking to replicate Italian saint’s friary church met with objections from residents concerned ‘busloads of Catholics’ will visit site

GENOA TOWNSHIP — The American Freedom Law Center is entering the battle for a Catholic “place of serenity and prayer” in Genoa Township.

The nonprofit legal firm has been retained by Catholic Healthcare International to challenge Genoa Township’s rejection of a special land use application to build a chapel and prayer campus in honor of St. Padre Pio on 40 acres of land donated by the Diocese of Lansing. 

Robert Muise, an attorney and co-founder of AFLC, which specializes in cases advancing and defending religious liberty, called the township’s rejection of the land use permit “ridiculous” after township residents objected to the plans during a municipal meeting. 

Muise said Genoa Township trustees violated the federal Religious Land Use Institutionalized Persons Act. The law, passed unanimously by the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate and signed by President Bill Clinton in 2000, protects churches and other religious institutions from zoning law restrictions on their property.

“I don’t see how this isn’t an absolute plain violation of that statute in addition to their other constitutional rights,” Muise said during a talk to Livingston Men on Fire at Holy Spirit Catholic Church near Brighton.

Township trustees rejected a plan to build a small, 6,090-square-foot chapel and 38 parking spaces on the 40-acre campus, citing neighbor complaints.

Photos showing what the chapel would look like appear in the spot where the chapel would stand. (Joseph Serwach | Special to Detroit Catholic)

The new adoration chapel, when completed, would join a new natural outdoor prayer grotto supported by prayer groups worldwide. Still, township residents have complained about the grotto, saying it could attract “busloads of Catholics” from outside the area.

The broader project, known as “Casa USA,” seeks to duplicate St. Pio’s famed “Home for the Relief of Suffering” hospital complex for the first time outside of Italy, including an exact replica of the great Capuchin saint’s original friary church. 

The prayer grotto and chapel are the first phase of the project. A future second phase would begin a Terri Shiavo Rehabilitation Center for Brain Injured, and a fully Catholic hospital and a Catholic medical school modeled after the Vatican-run facility begun by Padre Pio would follow as fundraising support progresses.

The medical facilities would not be built on the Genoa Township site, said Catholic Healthcare International president Jere Palazzolo.

The Diocese of Lansing bought the Genoa Township land decades ago, knowing the zoning allowed for a church on the property. The diocese planned a potential future parish, as Livingston County was Michigan’s fastest-growing county at the time. Bishops scrapped plans for a new parish after numerous factory closings and an economic decline hit Michigan starting in 2000.

In 2019, Lansing Bishop Earl Boyea and former St. Louis Cardinal Raymond Burke blessed Catholic Healthcare International’s plan to bring St. Padre Pio’s idea of “faithful Catholic health care” to America.

Bishop Boyea gifted the site to the St. Padre Pio group, and Livingston Catholics have been actively involved with the effort, already praying at the site and walking its wooded trails.

A sign alerts visitors of the planned site where the “Casa USA” project would be built in Genoa Township. (Joseph Serwach | Special to Detroit Catholic)
Robert Muise, co-founder and counsel for the American Freedom Law Center, is representing Catholic Healthcare International in the lawsuit. 

The Genoa Township Board of Trustees, responding to neighbors who prefer the land remain undeveloped, voted down plans for a small adoration chapel on a 5-2 vote on May 3 after every other public board approved the plans.

“We have no intention of turning away from St. Padre Pio’s call,” Palazzolo said in an email to supporters.

On May 25, the birthday of St. Padre Pio (1887-1968), Cardinal Burke returned to the Genoa Township campus to personally bless it before celebrating Mass at Holy Spirit Church.

Muise specializes in constitutional litigation and has a long track record of challenging governmental attempts to limit or restrict the religious freedom of individuals.

Before launching the AFLC, he was a senior counsel for the Ann Arbor-based Thomas Moore Law Center, started by Domino’s Pizza founder Tom Monaghan, whose philanthropic efforts focus on advancing Catholicism.

Muise, the father of 12 children, served 13 years in the Marines, including time during the Persian Gulf War. While serving as a captain on active duty, he also attended Notre Dame Law School, graduating at the top of his class.

In 2002, he successfully challenged the Ann Arbor Public Schools for violating the rights of a Catholic high school student, saying her rights to express her Catholic views during the school’s “diversity week” had been restricted after school officials said her viewpoint presented a “negative” message that could “water-down” the “positive” message they wanted.