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.

An early postcard from the Grotto, probably from the 1920s, with the Golden Dome and Sacred Heart in the background.

An early postcard from the Grotto, probably from the 1920s, with the Golden Dome and Sacred Heart in the background.

What memories of dear
and secret trysts
Cling round this holy place!
Beneath the stars
Here won we strength to gird
for silent wars,
And grace to bring Her name
into the lists
The Dome, 1928
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 Most Rev. Daniel R. Jenky, Bishop of Peoria.

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 when 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:

Shortly before 8 p.m. on December 1, 1969, I was the only one at the Grotto. It was a typical cold and windy South Bend evening, but nothing could have kept me away from the kneeler that night. It was the occasion of the first Vietnam War draft lottery, and for weeks I had been fearful that my birthday would be one of the first drawn. Several months before, I had registered with my local draft board as a "selective conscientious objector," meaning that I could not in good conscience participate in that war, although I did not claim to be a pacifist. However, draft boards all over the country were turning down such petitions, and if I got a low number in the lottery, I faced the prospect of going to jail.

I have to admit that, before that night, I had never been a "Grotto person." That was for my dad and uncles during nostalgic visits to the campus. But that night I was desperate enough to try anything, and, paradoxically, I prayed like a foxhole-bound combatant. I begged for the cup to pass, for Mary to assist me in the luck of the draw. "Please," I asked, "no low number for me. Let it be somebody else."

All of a sudden I heard a voice ask me, "Like who?"

Ever since that night I've wondered if that voice was within or without me. Of course, a skeptic would point out that it was grammatically incorrect, but I know that it spoke right to my condition, and left me stunned. After a few moments of collecting my composure, I was able to say, "O.K. Let it be me." I headed back to my room in Walsh Hall. As I opened my door the phone was ringing. It was one of my roommates calling from the library. "Are you O.K?" he asked. "I couldn't believe it when your birthday was the very first one drawn."

"I'm fine," I replied. "I'm really O.K." For the rest of the evening I fielded phone calls from relatives and friends, all of whom said that I was taking being number one in the draft lottery very well. A little over a year later, after many return visits to the Grotto, I managed to flunk my draft physical on St. Patrick's Day, thanks to a slight ailment I never thought would mean anything to me or the Army. But, by that time, I knew that I was being called not just to oppose a war, but to "wage peace" as we termed it in those days. I had decided that whatever I did in my life, I would try to live my conviction that all human life is precious and sacred.

Every time I hear the story of the marriage feast at Cana I am reminded that Mary changed her Son's life with only four words: "They have no wine."

I know how he must have felt. She changed mine with two.




[Editor's note: When I spoke to Griff Hogan to ask  permission to use his Grotto Story, he told me an amazing story about Rocky Bleier. He said that Rocky's influence and example was instrumental in helping him choose his life's work; working with the disabled. When Griff was an underclassmen, Rocky organized student volunteers to work with the disabled at the Logan Center across from Notre Dame. It was these experiences with the less fortunate that led Griff to his fulfilling and rewarding career.]

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.



Back to Irish Reveries