In 2005, this Buddhist group purchased the abandoned former retreat center and an adjacent piece of land from the Shrine. They maintained a good relationship with Fr. Murray and Fr. McGuire, who were serving in the Shrine at that time and agreed with the leader of the Buddhist group, Holy Master Ziguang Shang Shi’s philosophy of “World Peace, Human Health and Religious Harmony”. With the wish that religious harmony could start from here, the Chinese Buddhists began their investments for remodeling works, hoping to transform this place into a tourist destination for pilgrims and visitors.
In September 2009, according to a previous agreement, the Chinese Buddhist group started to build a new road along the property line between the Temple and the Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs, connecting Ripley Road and Shrine Road. Since the elevation difference between Ripley Road and the Temple’s property was too high, the Buddhists suggested that the new road use about ten feet of the Shrine’s property near the entrance. The former Director of the Shrine agreed to this proposal. The Buddhists regarded this as a gift and thus named the new road as “Friendship Road”. This road has been used for almost five years without any dispute.
Since Father George H. Belgarde S.J. became the director of Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs in 2011, he refused all of the requests from the Chinese Buddhists to visit him. The friendship between the Chinese Buddhists and the Shrine staff eroded gradually. On June 21, 2013, the Buddhist group prepared to pave Friendship Road, but Fr. Belgarde called the police. He forced the contractor to leave and placed sticks in the middle of Friendship Road. He stopped Friendship Road from being paved.
Before this incident, Fr. Belgarde cut off the Buddhists’ water supply, which was used by both the Shrine and them, and erected a barricade on April 1, 2013, with two tree trunks to block Shrine Road, which is the access road leading towards the Jesus statue in front of the office building of WPHO and WSBT, and then blocked all other access roads. This incident has prevented tourists from visiting and has had a negative impact on pilgrims. Because Chinese is a minority group in this region, their several calls to the police and visits to the local authority were unfavorable. Further, the police warned them that they would be arrested for walking on Shrine Road.
The Buddhists asked for help from David S. Ciancimino, S.J., who is the Provincial of Jesuit New York Province. With Fr. Ciancimino’s kind assistance, Fr. Belgarde had to remove all barricades on July 17, 2013, and the roads were accessible again. Peace came back to this holy place once more. Nevertheless, Fr. Belgarde would not stop here, and other actions from him would soon follow.
On June 12, 2014, the base and curb of Friendship Road were intentionally damaged. On June 30, 2014, Fr. Belgarde ordered the shrine staff to obstruct Shrine Road with five concrete blocks preventing people from visiting the Jesus Statue. On July 1, 2014, he ordered a large section of the Shrine road to be destroyed with a tractor backhoe, and warned the temple members through the police not to access the Shrine property, otherwise they will be arrested. He ordered another access road between the Shrine and the Temple blocked with a pile of rubble. Later Fr. Belgarde intimidated the postman who was delivering mail.
Fr. Belgarde’s escalating anti-Chinese behaviors and damage to the Shrine Road, which has decades of history, is against the spirits of the saints who sacrificed themselves for disseminating the love of God, as well as saddening the hearts of Catholics. The extreme behaviors of Fr. Belgarde severely infringed upon the temple’s rights of accessing the property freely, hindered emergency vehicles and mail delivery, and prevented visitors from walking towards the Jesus statue. What Fr. Belgarde has done had breached the law, and is also contempt for human rights and the law.
Since 2005, under Holy Master Ziguang Shang Shi’s leadership, the Chinese Buddhists came here to pursue Guang Huan Mi Zong Buddhism’s mission of “relieve pain and suffering, enlighten sentient beings,” and to serve the people in the community. All of the temple members, including preachers and lay followers, promote Buddhist teachings and Esoteric Dharma cultivation method with compassion and altruism, for educating people to do good deeds and cultivate virtue, so that they can be freed from affliction and sicknesses, and make contributions to the mission of “World Peace, Human Health and Religious Harmony”.
Fr. Belgarde’s behavior towards the Chinese Buddhist community – his repeated provocations and damage of the access road which had served visitors to the shrine – is totally unacceptable to them. He claims Shrine road to be a private driveway and stops the postman from delivering mail. Over 100 witnesses, including Buddhist practitioners, pilgrims and visitors, were appalled by such extreme behaviors of Fr. Belgarde. They felt their safety was threatened. In order to prevent Fr. Belgarde from escalating his extreme behavior again, they turn to ask for help from the government, the court, the press and you.