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.

This is the oldest known image of the Grotto. The postcard was first printed in 1898, and the postmark on the card is August 17, 1903.

This is the oldest known image of the Grotto. The postcard was first printed in 1898, and the postmark on the card is August 17, 1903.

What though our paths may not be bright!
Ever Thy Grotto's candle light
Steadies a faith, e'en while the night
Gathers down thickly.
From the Dome, 1923
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.

Here is this month's excerpt from Grotto Stories:

My Grotto story is simple: Three times Our Lady has given me back my life.

I first came to Notre Dame and the Grotto in 1962 as a St. Mary's freshman. I looked, talked and acted like a typical upper middle class good Catholic girl from a large and happy family of nine children. At least that was how I presented myself. The interior confusion and anguish of having lived for many years in a chaotic family with two alcoholic parents (in a world where alcoholism didn't exist among "nice" people) was, I think, well hidden.

At Notre Dame I found peace and wonderful people who helped me find an inner core that I had lost in the turbulence of my birth home. Most importantly, I was gifted with a wonderful man who still loves me unconditionally after thirty+ years of marriage.

After graduation, my husband and I set about the business of living and raising a family. In 1985, we brought our oldest son to Notre Dame as an incoming freshman. The joy of that weekend was tempered by the knowledge that the family disease of alcoholism had taken hold of me. I wonder how many other parents sat through the Orientation weekend with a flask discreetly hidden on their persons. I suspect I was not the only one. The Saturday afternoon of Orientation weekend I left my family and took a long walk; back and forth along the path to St. Mary's, ending at the Grotto. I sat and meditated for a long time, remembering the girl

I had been when I came to St. Mary's and facing the reality of the woman I had become. I asked Our Lady to help me do what I knew had to be done. Three weeks later I walked into my first AA meeting and I have been sober ever since.

Five years of sobriety brought much happiness and many wonderful changes to my life. In March of 1990 my husband and I came to Notre Dame for St. Patrick's Day. Our oldest son had graduated in 1989; his brother was a senior due to graduate in June. Gary was engaged to a lovely young woman (also a Domer) and the wedding would take place at Sacred Heart Basilica. Our youngest child, a daughter, had just been accepted as an incoming freshman for the ND Class of '94. That Friday, March 16, was an uncommonly beautiful and warm day. My husband suggested a walk around St. Joseph's Lake and we paused on the far side to look back at the campus landscape. I remember feeling a sense of perfect peace and happiness -so close to my husband and God and Our Lady. I have never felt like that before or since.

The next day turned cold and rainy. We stopped at the Grotto that night and as we were leaving I felt a slight nose bleed begin. Later that night I awoke with a massive hemorrhage from my nose. The final diagnosis was a rare form of cancer -a brain tumor that could only be removed by radical craniofacial surgery. I had the initial surgery and I was strangely unafraid. I could not forget that I had started to bleed at Our Lady's Grotto. I was not sure what that meant, but it was strangely reassuring.

January of 1991 found me still alive, but faced with a grave dilemma. The initial cancer surgery and subsequent infections had cost me my forehead bone plate. Doctors offered a chance at reconstructive surgery that could give me some semblance of normalcy -a cranioplasty that would take a piece of bone from the side of my head and be used to create a new forehead. There were no guarantees of a successful graft; potential complications from such surgery began with severe neurological impairment and grew worse. How to choose?

By now I had learned that decisions such as these, too big and complex for ordinary people like me, belong to God. So I asked His Mother to please find out what I should do and let me know. As you see, the beauty of being very sick is that life becomes very simple.

On February 11 at noon, my phone rang. It was my doctor saying that, if I wanted to try the operation, it could be done on February 14. February 11 and 14 are the dates of the first two apparitions of Mary to Bernadette at the Lourdes Grotto. Some may call it coincidence or just plain silliness, but I will believe till I die that this was Mary's way of telling me her Son's answer - to go ahead and have the operation. It would be OK.

I might mention that the operation was a complete success and I set new records for a quick recovery. I was up and walking about the day after surgery. I do not exaggerate when I say that the nurses and doctors on my floor could not believe what they were seeing. Of course it was hard to believe -it was a miracle in progress.

In 1996 I am still cancer-free and I am still in awe that Our Lady of the Grotto saw fit to intervene so directly in my life. I do not know where the journey will take us next, but I do know that I love to walk with her and, for some reason that I do not understand, I humbly feel that she likes to walk with me.


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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