Orange County

New grotto at St. Thomas More an exercise in leadership and devotion

With help from would-be Eagle Scouts like Jason Byrley, St. Thomas More Catholic Church is adding what its pastor, the Rev. Scott McCue, calls a “devotional area” to part of the land that separates it from Fordham Boulevard.

Parishioners gathered after Mass on Sunday morning to dedicate one of its centerpiece features, a Marian grotto that Byrley designed, raised money for and helped build as part of his Eagle project.

Another scout, McCue said, is already working to add a display of the stations of the cross to the path that winds across the lawn to the grotto.

St. Thomas More’s parish administrator, Carlos Lima, “has had this idea for a while, envisioning what could be on this spot” of the parcel the church moved to in 1998, McCue said. “It just took a while for it to come to fruition.”

Along with the time, the stone grotto took no small amount of sweat equity from Byrley, who worked on the project for about a year, and fellow parishioners like Ismael Galvan. The landscaper instructed the teenager in the practical aspects of the construction process, led the laying of the grotto’s foundation and ultimately did a lot of the stonework.

Construction began in March after Byrley, a newly minted Chapel Hill High School graduate headed to Radford University in Virginia this fall, secured what he remembers as “thousands dollars in donations and a lot of support from my friends, strangers even.”

And people were ready to pitch in, even when that meant dragging heavy bags of cement from the church’s parking lot to the grotto site on an overlook above the boulevard.

“All of a sudden, a team of random parishioners came up and said, ‘Let’s go,’” Byrley recalled. “It just came together so naturally.”

For Byrley and other would-be wearers of the Boy Scouts’ highest rank, the Eagle project is a service project that’s supposed to benefit a religious institution, a school or the community as a whole. Small construction projects are its stock in trade, and regardless of a project’s nature, the would-be Eagle has to supply the planning and leadership to pull it off.

To build the grotto – a small shrine to Mary, mother of Jesus Christ – that meant a lot of up-front discussion with architects and other professionals to “get a much more detailed and bigger picture of what the project” would entail, Byrley said.

It also meant honing his skills at persuasion, learning to “craft the words I’m saying to best reach the ears of whoever it is I need to contact,” he said.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg