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A local Catholic group wants to build a $100 million pro-life shrine and towering golden arch dedicated to Mary, the mother of Jesus, on the Lake Erie shore in Buffalo's outer harbor area.

The project, featuring a 700-foot-tall arch, would be known as "The Arch of Triumph of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and International Shrine of the Holy Innocents." If the money can be raised, it would be developed by a newly formed not-for-profit association headed by Buffalo attorney Laurence D. Behr, who also serves as president of Western New York Lawyers for Life.

Behr, who says he was inspired during a dream to build a shrine to Mary, said the ascendable arch would "rank among the man-made wonders of the world." It would replace the 630-foot-tall Gateway Arch in St. Louis as the world's tallest monument, he asserted.

"It will serve as an international signal call to conversion and a return to God and to an ever greater love of purity and rejection of abortion and immorality," he declared.

In addition, the shrine would be "a marvelous tourist attraction" that should draw "millions of visitors annually of all faiths and of no church affiliation at all," Behr predicted.

The proposed arch, rising to 700 feet at the tip of the cross on its peak, would tower over Buffalo's tallest structure, the 560-foot-high HSBC Center at the foot of Main Street.

The arch would contain three chapels, one in each leg and one in its peak, and perhaps such facilities as a museum or gallery, book and gift shop and refreshment area. Administrative offices and other facilities might be located on upper floors inside the arch's legs. Elevators would carry visitors to an observation platform beneath the "Chapel of Triumph" beneath the arch's peak.

Behr said the two-level International Shrine of the Holy Innocents, centered beneath the apex of the arch, would recall Herod's slaughter of babies as described in the New Testament and link it to abortion, which has become commonplace worldwide.

It would contain a white marble statue of Mary holding the Christ Child as the Prince of Peace, a mural depicting the Slaughter of the Holy Innocents, a mural of Our Lady of Guadalupe and perhaps a chapel. Statuary of Mary, Joseph and Jesus on the "Flight Into Egypt" also would be located on the site.

"I'm hoping it could be completed in three to four years. Maybe that is too optimistic, but it's a hope," said Behr. "We are proceeding on faith in God to get this done."

Once donations begin flowing in, Behr plans to seek a site along the Outer Harbor in the area south of the U.S. Coast Guard Station, between Fuhrmann Boulevard and Lake Erie. Much of the vacant land in that area is owned by the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, which might be asked to provide parking and shuttle-bus service to the shrine.

Though it is often argued that accessibility to the outer harbor is inconvenient, especially in the winter, and that attractions there are hard to find, Behr observed that "it won't be hard to find a 700-foot-high arch."

Most of the visitors would be expected during warm weather, he said, noting that about 80 percent of the people who visit the Gateway Arch in St. Louis do so between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

Backers have not yet approached city officials for approval for the project.

"It is such a big thing, and it sounds so impossible, that maybe it is something that could happen," said Nancy M. Langer, a member of the association's board of directors and a past president of the St. Thomas More Guild, an organization of Catholic lawyers.

"It is one of those things that if God wants it to happen, he's got to give Larry the means to make it happen," she added.

Focus for the pro-life movement

Stasia Zoladz Vogel, president of the Buffalo Regional Right to Life Committee, said she sees the project as "very doable because it would be a focus for the pro-life movement nationally."

The Rev. Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life, based on Staten Island, said: "We need to stir the attention of the public to these (pro-life) issues whether they want to hear about them or not. A sign as public and visible as the proposed arch and shrine will certainly serve this purpose."

Behr, a partner in Barth, Sullivan and Behr, acknowledged that he is counting on national and international support, suggesting that in the United States and Canada there should be "at least a million people" who would be willing to contribute $100 or more to finance the project.

Though representatives of the Buffalo Catholic Diocese have been apprised of the project, Bishop Henry J. Mansell withheld endorsement of the undertaking. "At this time, we are waiting to see more definitive plans for his project, and we are interested in the opportunity for public comment on it," Mansell said. The bishop lauded Behr for his "well-known commitment to the pro-life movement."

James Wright, operator of an Amherst dental lab, who is a member of the shrine's board of directors, pointed out that "everyone told us it wasn't going to happen" when he proposed starting a Catholic radio station a few years ago.

That station, WLOF-FM, will celebrate its second anniversary Aug. 15. It broadcasts 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

"I feel (Behr) has a calling to make this shrine happen in Buffalo. It's a great place for it because Buffalo is the Queen City," said Wright. "I think people will come from all parts of the world to see it."

"A lot of things have to fall in place. The first thing is money," said Richard N. Blewett, another director and past president of the Erie County Bar Association.

Blewett and Vogel acknowledged that because of its strong pro-life theme, the arch and shrine are likely to be controversial.

"It will be opposed by pro-abortionists, those who are anti-Catholic and waterfront restoration purists," said Vogel.

Raising money is the major challenge

There is no denying that raising the money will be a major challenge, said board member Anthony J. Colucci Jr., a past president of the St. Thomas More Guild.

"Bingo games are not going to put this up," he said. "It's going to require a lot of leadership and lots of donors with a lot of allegiance to and respect for the Blessed Mother. But there may be a few big donors out there who fit that description."

Plans for the project will be formally announced during a news conference at 2 p.m. Saturday in front of City Hall. That announcement will signal the start of fund raising.

A prospectus detailing the project can be found on the Internet at Contributions can be made through that site.

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