Under pressure, the shrine paid, but then sought a tax abatement through the courts, arguing that all 199 acres were used for religious purposes. Faith leaders from across Massachusetts agreed and filed a brief in support of the shrine. “The notion that local assessors or any government actor is equipped or would presume to deem whether one use of a religious organization's property or another falls within the definition of ‘religious worship’ is antithetical to religious freedom,” said the brief, signed by leaders representing Jewish, Christian, and Muslim organizations. Catholic bishops in Massachusetts, including Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley, also weighed in, arguing in a brief that the shrine’s grounds offer “communion with nature,” which “is a core religious activity with ancient roots in Christianity’s past.”
As the justices weigh whether or not different parts of the shrine’s property are taxable, visitors to the campus have said they use it for a variety of purposes, both sacred and profane. Kristine Ramierez visits for the open space. The 26-year-old Catholic heads to the shrine a few times each month to attend Mass and lead retreats geared toward Catholic families. During these gatherings, she said, it’s not uncommon to light a candle in one of the indoor chapels and then head outside to pray and meditate, perhaps taking a seat in one of the gardens or venturing out to the nearby pond, where the church gets its holy water.
“Normally, in our own lives, we go from building to building and there’s not a lot of open space, which I think is needed for clearing your mind,” she said. The grounds of the shrine are perfect for this, she continued, calling them “very peaceful and meditative.”
Mike Rodrigues has visited the shrine since his childhood, too. But the 37-year-old Fall River resident goes primarily for the 400,000 Christmas lights the La Salette missionaries string up each year, an event that typically attracts hundreds of thousands of people.
“It’s a tradition in my family,” Rodrigues said. “It’s peaceful, it puts things in perspective. The ambiance and the energy in the place is powerful.” He remembers going as a kid, watching his grandparents climb up the long flight of stairs on their knees to reach the statue of the Virgin Mary situated at the top of the hill, reciting prayers along the way.
Today, he said, that’s a less common sight. Instead, visitors will likely find Santa Claus, a couple thousand crèches displayed throughout the grounds, and hordes of children enjoying apple cider and hot chocolate.
Both Ramierez and Rodrigues say their visits are meaningful. But one might be best described as a pilgrim, and the other, a tourist. This is what city officials argued in a brief: The farmers markets, carnivals, yard sales, and clambakes held on the shrine’s grounds are largely commercial activities. They say the Massachusetts law granting property-tax exemption has to be read literally: The text mentions only houses of religious worship, parsonages, and pews and other furniture, so the woods and café don’t qualify.