The beloved Virgin Mary statue atop Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center survived an earthquake - but might not be able to withstand the evolution of the health-care business intact.
A proposed $100 million modernization of Lourdes' main campus on Haddon Avenue in Camden could involve removing the statue and reinstalling it on the grounds.
But a final decision has not been made.
"We want to create a modern look, and we also want to respect our past," says Kim Barnes, vice president of planning and development for the Lourdes Health System.
"Believe me, we've looked at a number of options. A lot of people have an affinity for the statue being up high. There are very passionate opinions."
Neither a decision about relocating the statue nor the financing for the overall project has been finalized. But a PowerPoint presentation that Lourdes has shared with members of the public includes preliminary renderings of a dramatically reconfigured, architecturally updated, and state-of-the-art facility, with private rooms and other amenities for patients, staff, and visitors.
The transformation will help "create a new brand," the presentation says.
The front door of the original, eight-story Lourdes hospital - which opened in 1950 and includes the 30-foot statue and pedestal overlooking Haddon Avenue - would be moved to the west side of the three-building complex.
In the renderings, the entire tower section and existing main lobby have been demolished; images also show a new driveway from Haddon Avenue leading to a surface parking lot and a brand-new landscaped entrance.
"One of the main [improvements] is that access to the campus will be simplified," Barnes says. "Right now, people have to park across the street, cross busy [Haddon Avenue], and walk up a hill."
Inside the new entrance, a new core, or lobby, and an east-west corridor would better connect the original hospital and its two later additions. The core also would be a hub for pharmacy, dining, gift shop, and other services.
"We're trying to rightsize our facilities," Barnes says. "That means providing a little less care in hospital beds and more community-based outpatient services."
Long constrained by a tight, five-acre location that abuts a well-kept section of the Parkside neighborhood, Lourdes would utilize much of the neighboring site of the former Monastery of the Dominican Nuns of the Perpetual Rosary.
The convent closed in 2013; the hospital purchased the eight-acre property from the monastic order's parent the following year for $4 million.
The handsome brownstone chapel, where the Rosary was said continuously for more than 100 years, would be preserved. So would the majestic stone walls along Euclid and Ormond Avenues.
'A nice new spot'
But the statue, carved from Indiana limestone by the respected sculptor Ivan L. Adams, would be relocated near the new entrance. It would be illuminated and visible from some patient rooms, but it would no longer light up the sky over the city.
The statue is bathed in green light each time a patient undergoes an organ transplant at Lourdes.
So great is the affection for what many call the Blessed Mother statue that 1,200 individuals, businesses, and schools collectively donated $65,000 to pay for repairs it needed after the Aug. 23, 2011, earthquake. And the restored Blessed Mother's reinstallation April 3, 2012, was a community celebration.
"I feel bad about [moving] it, but I think Mary is really OK with having a nice new spot," says Helen Owens, a Franciscan sister who describes herself as semiretired from a 30-year administrative career at Lourdes.
"We have to continue to provide the best care, and it's hard to do what we need to do in the way of modernization" without removing the tower and moving the statue, Owens adds.
The proposed changes at Lourdes are among a number of major projects in the city and the neighborhood, notes Bridget Phifer, executive director of Parkside Business and Community in Partnership Inc.
Just a few blocks from Lourdes, the century-old Camden High School is set to be demolished and replaced.
A $4.4 million upgrade of Haddon Avenue from the hospital east to the White Horse Pike is ongoing, and the Partnership's $8.9 million retail and office building is expected to break ground at Haddon and Liberty Street in 2017.
"I don't have a connection with the statue," Phifer says. "But I respect people who do."
Which is why I'm saddened by the thought of the statue no longer overlooking the city, where so many other landmarks have disappeared altogether.
So as Lourdes seeks to better compete with the region's ever-more-fabulous urban and suburban hospitals, I hope it finds a way to keep this majestic work of public art in the lofty place it has so eloquently held for nearly 70 years.