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Replica of Christ’s tomb reopened by northern Ky.-Cincinnati church

COVINGTON, Ky. (BP)–Though it initially attracted thousands of visitors, since 1960 the world’s only exact replica of what many believe to be Christ’s tomb has been northern Kentucky’s best-kept secret.
However, the vision of the late Morris Coers, pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Covington, experienced a resurrection just before this past Easter.
A dedication ceremony on Palm Sunday marked the resumption of regular public tours of The Garden of Hope, which originally opened in 1958.
“I think it’s going to be an awesome experience and an opening to cross denominational boundaries,” said Ben Murry, until recently Immanuel’s pastor and now a full-time student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville.
“This is what Coers tried to do — set up an interdenominational effort so people could see who Jesus is,” he said.
“The risen Savior is what it’s all about,” added Roxie Jacoby, church secretary and a member of the garden committee for 11 years. “I’m excited. God is calling a lot of people up there to see and believe.
“It’s going to be a beacon for Covington,” she said. “It was a vision of one man that’s been dormant for a long time, but it’s coming alive.”
An Indiana native who later served in that state’s legislature, Coers decided against a political career and studied for the ministry at Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute.
He held pastorates in Indiana and Illinois before moving to Covington at the end of World War II.
His first trip to the Holy Land in 1938 included a visit to Christ’s tomb in Jerusalem. That so moved him he vowed to build a replica so Americans who couldn’t afford to travel to Israel could still experience it.
He announced the project at an Easter sunrise service in 1956, selecting a 2.5-acre site on top of a hill overlooking the skylines of Covington and Cincinnati.
Among early backers were Kentucky Gov. A.B. Chandler and Hubert Taft, Jr., the great nephew of former U.S. President William Howard Taft. Coers brought Solomon Matter, warden of the Jerusalem tomb, to Kentucky to oversee construction.
The garden also features a carpenter’s shop like the kind Christ worked in, a chapel patterned after a Spanish mission, a 503-pound stone from the Wailing Wall and an Italian marble statue of Jesus preaching the Sermon on the Mount.
There is also the “Mystery Cross,” fashioned of telephone poles, which mysteriously appeared on the grounds late one night in the 1950s, and a small gift shop with items from the Holy Land.
The garden cost an estimated $125,000 to build and attracted more than 150,000 visitors its first two years. But two months before the official Easter dedication ceremony in 1960, Coers suffered a heart attack and died.
In addition to its founder’s death, the garden was hurt by Immanuel’s membership decline amid the decade’s suburban growth. The church considered allowing the state to manage the attraction, but later sold it to Matter’s son. His attempt to revive the garden failed and in 1971 the deed reverted to the church.
While Immanuel held Easter sunrise services there for years and periodically gave tours, for most of the past 25 years it has been idle. Problems with vandalism and overgrowth symbolized its state of neglect.
Repairs to the property began in 1993, with several members cutting grass and weeds and planting flowers. Wanda and Ed Hodge got involved in the effort soon after joining the church.
When a member showed her husband the property, Wanda said he was amazed such a beautiful site existed near their home. Although they have lived here throughout 41 years of marriage, the couple had never heard of the garden.
“He rededicated his life at Immanuel,” Hodge said of her husband. “This is like a mission for him. It shows when he works there.”
She credited Bob Palmer, whose struggle with cancer forced him to resign last year, with stirring interest in restoration. There are about eight active members left on the garden committee.
“I think it’s wonderful,” she said of the reopening. “I’ve never been to Israel or seen the [Jerusalem] tomb but people who have been there say [Kentucky’s] is almost like it. Whenever we work up there, people ask questions about it and say they can feel the Holy Spirit. A lot of people come up there to pray.”
Daily operations are directed by Donna Sheehy, who heads an all-volunteer ministry known as “The Upper Room.”
While she currently attends a nondenominational church, she was raised Southern Baptist. Her father, Ted Padgett, was a longtime bivocational pastor of many churches in the area.
In December 1996, the ministry set up a Christmas display with 22,000 lights and biblical scenes featuring live actors. While that event attracted 7,000, Sheehy hopes greater numbers visit the garden in the future.
“We aren’t interested in making money but in spreading the Word of God,” she said of past financial problems. “Our goal is to put the garden back into the community and let people know it’s here.”
The Garden of Hope is open daily from 9 a.m. to sunset. There is limited access to the chapel and carpenter’s shop on Mondays and Tuesdays. The gift shop is open Wednesday through Sunday.
To get there, take the Interstate 75’s 12th Street exit to Holman Street. Turn right on Holman and follow it to 16th Street, then turn right on 16th and take it to Monroe. Follow Monroe for one block and turn right onto Edgecliff Drive. The garden is on the left at 699 Edgecliff.

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  • Ken Walker