Almost two years ago, Rick Gross was attending the Saturday Vigil Mass at St. Bartholomew Church when the Rev. John LaRosa asked for volunteers to care for the grounds in the rear of the property at Harbison and Cheltenham avenues.
The parish caretaker was retiring, and the grotto and the rest of the area needed to be maintained.
Gross, though a parishioner at St. Timothy, stepped up to the challenge. He’s gotten plenty of help from his brother, Gary, who makes regular visits from Somers Point to chip in, and a cousin, Rich Junod.
Together, with the help of a repaired tractor and the purchase of lawn mowers and trimmers, they have disposed of Dumpsters of trash, removed overgrown trees and dense brush, restored the grotto with a fountain and lighting, cut the grass, maintained bushes and installed stepping stones to make the backyard of St. Bart’s look like a little bit of heaven.
“It’s a lot better than what it was,” said Gross, a 74-year-old retiree.
That’s an understatement. Gross has before pictures showing weeds, moss and a mosquito-infested pond.
The grotto, featuring a statue of the Blessed Mother, was built in 1929 and upgraded in 1999. Gross designed a Christmas scene for it last December.
Over the years, the grotto was the backdrop for pictures after first Holy Communion and weddings.
Today, there are some changes. LaRosa recently retired, and administration of the parish has been given to the Rev. Michael Olivere, pastor at St. Timothy. Gross said Olivere asked him to continue his volunteer work.
Now that the grounds look more appealing with a welcome sign, flowers, plants and benches, St. Bartholomew parishioners will pray the rosary after the 10 a.m. Mass each Sunday. The timing is good, as May is the month of Mary, Mother of God.
“It makes me feel good that people are starting to use it a little more,” Gross said.
As for Junod, he gives most of the credit to Gross for unselfishly working to keep a vibrant spiritual environment at St. Bart’s. He describes Gross as a kind soul who works through physical and painful handicaps to address neighborhood decay. Further, he calls the Army veteran of the Vietnam War a leader and an old-time proud American who places his faith in God, country and family and deflects his deserved recognition.
Gross, who credits Boy Scout Troop 179 with helping maintain a portion of the grounds, hopes St. Bart’s has a long future ahead of it because he’d like to repair some concrete damage on the grotto and address other needs on the grounds.
“I still consider it a work in progress,” he said. “There’s a lot more that I’d like to do.” ••