GROTTO STORIES: From the Heart of Notre Dame

"From the great Golden Dome of her University, Our Lady reigns as our Queen. Yet at the Grotto, she seems to have stepped down a little closer to us that she might emphasize the other side of her personal relationship with us--that of Our Mother."

Rev. John E. Fitzgerald wrote in the Scholastic, May 2, 1950.

Vintage postcard of the Grotto in the snow.

Vintage postcard of the Grotto in the snow.

Shrine of Our Lady...Shrine of Our Mother...
Vault of the outpoured gold of the dying day
Where God casts the first glance of Spring
and the snow lies whitest in the winter.
From the Dome, 1925
The title of this column has been borrowed from the Internet journal of research, A Cave of Candles:  The Story  Behind the Notre Dame Grotto , which inspired the collection of Grotto Letters that became, Grotto Stories:  From the Heart of Notre Dame.  The Web address for the A Cave of Candles  is


From the forward in Grotto Stories, I have excerpted two paragraphs that give some background history on the Grotto, how and why it was built and what it means to the life at Notre Dame. It’s by Rev. Daniel R. Jenky, C.S.C., Rector of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart.

Father Basil Moreau, the founder of the Congregation of Holy Cross, and Father Edward Sorin, the founder of the University of Notre Dame, both visited Lourdes on several occasions and both firmly believed in the miraculous nature of Bernadette’s visions. In fact, the first organized pilgramage to Lourdes from outside of France was led by Holy Cross priest from the University of Notre Dame. The earliest known representation of Our Lady of Lourdes in the United States can be seen in the stained glass window in the west transept of Notre Dame’s Basilica of the Sacred Heart. It was always Father Sorin’s fond desire to build a replica of the Lourdes Grotto at Our Lady’s School. His dream was accomplished three years after his death whe in 1896, Father Corby constructed and dedicated Notre Dame’s Grotto.

Almost everyone who visits Notre Dame spends at least some time at the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes. For the last hundred years, nearly every student who has ever studied here has found the Grotto to be a place of welcome and prayer. Countless candles testify to the devotion of generations, all inspired by the loving witness of Mary. Here the Mother of Christ is deeply revered as the Blessed Mother of all those who believe in his Gospel and trust in the power of his grace. Hearts are comforted, lives are changed, and real miracles continue to happen. Faith is at the very heart of this University’s life and mission and the Grotto is at the very heart of Notre Dame.

The book Grotto Stories was a labor of love for two very talented, dedicated and inspiring women: Dorothy Corson and Mary Pat Dowling. For the story behind their book, please see HOW GROTTO STORIES CAME TO BE, below.

The first in our series of Grotto Stories excerpts is a moving one, and also a favorite of Dorothy Corson:

In 1983, the oldest of our five children was admitted to (and accepted) membership in the class of 1987 at Notre Dame. We encouraged her to go. Her dad was a graduate. She would love it! In August 1983 we drove the one hour to our airport in Albuquerque and put her on the plane. There was a huge lump in my throat. She was going to a foreign country, she was entering mainstream America. Could she adapt? Her entire childhood was different from anything we, her parents, had experienced growing up on the east coast. Maybe we were expecting too much. The excitement of the early weeks was exhilarating. She had made a good decision. Then, in October, it all seemed to fall apart. Professor Emil Hofman's letters to the freshman parents were poignant and scary. Essentially, he said homesickness was about to set in. How could this happen? Believe me, it happened. Our little girl called home distraught. There was not a chile or a tortilla or salsa or enchilada to be had for two hundred square miles.         How could this be?

The long and the short of it is that she "lost it." One very lonesome night in October, she dried the tears, and took a walk to the Grotto. She was feeling more alone than at any time in her life. She lit a candle, and asked God for his help and guidance as she faced one of the toughest times in her young life. As she stood up to walk back to her dorm, a priest who happened to be there, started to walk beside her and engaged in conversation. "How are you doing? ...Is everything all tight? ...I know it's tough to be so far away from home, but you really will do all tight ...Every freshman feels the way you do tonight ...You are really trying to do a difficult thing, leaving home and living in a new place ...God will help you do this ...and I am available for you to talk to anytime ...You can do this.

Father Hesburgh was "working" the Grotto, as he was so wont to do, But this time he had no way of knowing the impact of what he was doing.

Yes, Johanna finished at Notre Dame, and went on to medical school. In June, 1995, she finished her residency in pediatrics at the Universiry of New Mexico Medical Center and moved on to her "real job" -a physician in the Young Children's Health Clinic in the barrio of south Albuquerque where she will treat our state's most disadvantaged children. She will be speaking mostly in Spanish to parents who need her greatly. She will also be a junior faculty member at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine. And this would be enough, wouldn't it? But Johanna's successes also empowered her siblings to consider Notre Dame. Her three brothers also graduated from Notre Dame. One is a resident in ENT surgery, one is a candidate for a Ph.D. in theology, and one is a candidate for a Juris Doctor in Law.

...all because a humble priest saw a pained, lonesome freshman who needed a kind word. And so the Grotto is not a special place in and of itself or a special place because of what has happened there. But it is a special place because of what can happen there the past, and especially in the future.

    Ruth D. Kelly  Sante Fe, New Mexico

Click here to purchase Grotto Stories


How Grotto Stories Came To be

I am indebted in this project to the dedication, spirituality, and trust of Mrs.Dorothy Corson. Her four years of research into the history of the Grotto honors its centennial and the labors of her father, William Buckles, who built a replica of the Notre Dame Grotto on the grounds of St. Stanislaus Church in South Bend.

Dorothy and I see our own Grotto experience as something of a miracle. We first met when I worked in the Local History Room of the St. Joseph County Public Library. I was intrigued by the subject of her research and inspired by her perseverance.

In the fall of 1994, Dorothy brought her work to the attention of Elaine Cripe, editor of Alumni Publications, and asked if a request for personal stories relating to the Grotto could be placed in The ALUMNI Newsletter. Not long after hiring me as her assistant in March, Elaine gave me the assignment of writing the request for stories about the Grotto for the May 1995 issue of ALUMNI. I called Dorothy and said "You'll never guess where I'm working now and why I'm calling you." As the project evolved, Dorothy needed someone to adopt it. She says I was "planted in her path." Often when a question arose that seemed an obstacle in our path, Dorothy would say: "We'll just have to leave it up to Our Lady." During dry stretches in her research, Dorothy's prayer at the Grotto was: "Lady dressed in light, show me the way."

Rev. Thomas McAvoy, C.S.C., former University Archivist and historian once said: "To have a history is to have a name, and the richer the history the more glorious the name." The more Dorothy dug up the historical facts of the Grotto's first hundred years, the more she realized that it's the faith, the feelings, the stories of the people who visit there that is the true history and glory of the Grotto. And she wished for such stories to eventually accompany her manuscript in the University Archives. Here, I mingle the stories with some of Dorothy's findings from countless hours of perusing archival documents and unindexed campus publications.

On behalf of the readers who find inspiration in Grotto Stories, I thank the authors for their part in spreading the glory. I sensed great appreciation for the invitation to put their feelings into words. Months after writing her poignant Grotto remembrance, Mary Murphy said in a telephone conversation: "It was so good for me to reflect and make heads and tails of the experience." Expressing it in writing helped to make it a "learning moment," she said.

My life and the lives of those around me have certainly been enriched -not only in collecting the Grotto letters, but also by the personal notes that came later. Upon learning of the project many of the letter authors sent words of encouragement. Kathy Ferrone wrote: "Behind your work is another Mary. It was for her that the Grotto was built, so she will probably show the interest she has in your project in some amazing ways ...In your work, you are not alone. Expect many blessings as you watch things fall in place before you."

You were right, Kathy.

Thank you all.



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