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Christ the Redeemer completes memorial grotto
Grotto pic
Parishioners of Christ the Redeemer Catholic Church in Dawsonville visit their new grotto after evening mass on May 14. From left are Mary and Charles Richards and Richard Burnett and his mother, Virginia Burnett. - photo by Nat Gurley DCN regional staff

Each paving stone that seasoned stonemason Allen Cerinetti placed on the ground marked a prayer by a college community and a pledge by a Catholic church congregation to build a memorial grotto in Dawsonville.

"Every stone I put in there was a prayer," Cerinetti said. "It was an act of faith, and it was inspired by the Holy Spirit."

He said faith in God were needed to make the dreams and vision of the grotto come to fruition, especially since the place of prayer faced one obstacle after another.

The grotto serves as a dedication to the Mother Mary and a memorial to a local tragedy. Kevin Sinnott, an Irish student at the former Southern Catholic College based in Dawsonville, drowned in a lake near the Dawsonville campus in 2009.

"It was a real tragedy when Kevin died," said Father Brian Higgins, who was a chaplain at the school at the time and is pastor of Christ the Redeemer Catholic Church in Dawsonville. "He was one of those magnetic personalities and was kind of the nucleus of the whole campus at the time."

After his death, the close-knit college community of 200 students decided to build a grotto at the school in Sinnott's memory. They raised about $25,000, but were unable to begin construction since the college closed its doors in 2010 because of a lack of funding.

The donations sat in a savings account for years until the decision was made to find the grotto another home.

"The lady in charge of the account asked the other students, and they decided that Dawsonville would be an appropriate place for it since it was the only area Kevin knew while he lived in America," Higgins said. "They approached me about putting it at our church."

Higgins agreed to build the memorial at Christ the Redeemer, but a lot of work had to be done before construction could begin. The group still needed at least another $10,000 to finish the grotto. Higgins approached the Catholic charity organization Knights of Columbus' Blessed Mother Mary Council in Dawsonville for help. The group raised $30,000, largely through the sale of engraved paving stones and benches in the grotto.

Cerinetti, a Knights of Columbus member and construction worker with 30 years of experience, volunteered to build the grotto for free.

"When I was a young boy, I actually dreamed of building a grotto," he said. "I don't why. It is not a normal dream for a kid, but when I heard about this project, it was like God sent it directly to me."

However, the projects' challenges weren't over. Frequent rain and snowy weather often delayed the project, which took about four months to complete.

In addition, the Christ the Redeemer congregation decided to place a statue of St. Peregrine, the patron saint of cancer patients, in the grotto. But the specific statue desired was too expensive.

A woman whose sister was diagnosed with cancer came to the rescue, donating half of the money. But the church was still far from the mark, until Higgins received a surprise in the mail.

"There was a parishioner I had at another parish whose husband died of cancer and I conducted the funeral," he said. "She knew nothing about the grotto or the statue, and she sent us a check for the exact amount we needed."

Now that the grotto is finished, members of Christ the Redeemer believe it will attract visitors and spread the word of God.

"We think it is going to be a great draw for a church our size," longtime church member Dick Buchner said. "We're a small church, and that is a pretty big project.

"It is something we can be proud of and can serve as a source of inspiration for many years to come."

The grotto itself is designed to replicate Our Lady of Lourdes in Lourdes, France. It was there that Mother Mary is said to have appeared to a young girl named Bernadette Soubirous, who later became a saint and has a statue in the Dawsonville grotto. For many years, Our Lady of Lourdes has been popular for Catholic pilgrimages.

In addition, the grotto features the statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a depiction of the pregnant Virgin Mary widely acclaimed as the protector of unborn children.

The dedication of the Our Lady of Lourdes/Kevin Sinnott Memorial will be at 11 a.m. May 24 at Christ the Redeemer Catholic Church at 991 Kilough Church Road in Dawsonville. Sinnott's mother, Kathy Sinnott, will attend the dedication.

The grotto is open to all in the community, whether they are Catholic or not.