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.
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, 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 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:

This little Grotto story takes place in June, 1995, while my husband, Jim, and I attended our fourth Notre Dame Elderhostel. One afternoon I rode a bike down to the Grotto, sat on a bench in the sun and just looked around. I drank in the whole Grotto scene slowly and languishingly with special attention to the candles ...the candles; what was on the minds of those persons who knelt before them, what was in their hearts? How many boys and girls, men and women laid out their souls, opened their hearts and minds in that sacred oasis?

I began to think of the previous times I had been to the Grotto and where I was in my life at those times, reflecting back further and further. I was feeling quite melancholy, pondering the seemingly lost years, my eyes resting on the young people passing by. Here I was, all at once an elderhosteler. When did it all happen? 

Down the path from the street came a young mother pushing a sleeping baby in a stroller with three older children. She sat on a bench in the shade with her sleeping baby and with her head resting on her hand, watched as her kids marched with assurance directly into the Grotto, behind the railing and ceremoniously lit every candle in the whole place.

How I yearned to be a young mother again. Yearning and desire gripped my heart. I wanted to be able to sit there with my young babies and to relive a moment I hadn't thought about in 30 years. It was in the early sixties when so many of us young parents had a bunch of kids and no money. We lived very sparingly. We never went anywhere, not even fast foods. But because we loved Notre Dame so much and Jim being a subway alumnus big time, we got tickets to a Blue-Gold game in the spring, two bucks a ticket. It was the BIG event for us. 

The long-anticipated Saturday arrived and we loaded the rusty, yellow station wagon with the stroller, playpen, lunches, Kool Aid, etc. It was a beautiful day and each one of us together ended up down at the Grotto. Daddy read the letter from Tom Dooley and explained all the Grotto stuff. As I picture it now, we must have been quite a sight, all kneeling in a row praying and whispering. 

The kids asked, "Mommy, can we light a candle?" 

"Do you think money grows on trees? If I let one of you light a candle, I'd have to let all of you light a candle. " 

"Please, Mommy?" 

"No," I said. aren't you kids ever satisfied?" I probably said all that kind of stuff and remembering that moment now nearly tore me apart with regret and desire. Tears were burning holes in my cheeks. I could hardly breathe. I left the Grotto. I couldn't cope. I had to walk my bike back to Lewis Hall because I couldn't see where I was going, so blurred was my vision from crying. I tried some centering exercises that helped but I still wished I had let the kids light a candle. 

A few days later I rode my bike down to the Grotto again. This time I sat on a bench in the shade and tried some more contemplation. When I opened my eyes, I saw two small roly-poly boys and their mother behind them. It was very hot and the boys were wiping the sweat from their faces with their black T-shirts. Mother, too, dressed all in black, was very hot and agitated. She had on thongs and her hair was pulled tightly back in a rubber band, wet with perspiration. You could tell this was her first time at the Grotto and upon scanning all the people praying and the obvious reverence, felt a little self-conscious. 

"Shhhh," she scolded her boys and kind of pushed and pulled at them. She forced them to a kneeling position at the railing and pulled out from a net bag a small camera. It was awkward for her to try to get the Grotto in the background and them kneeling and facing the camera at the same time. 

I went up to her and said, "If you'd like, I could take a picture of you all together." 

"That would be nice," she said. "Where should we stand?" 

"I have an idea," I said. "Why don't you stand behind the altar? There is a big ND insignia in front of the altar and the boys could pretend they're saying Mass. It always makes for a good picture." 

She and her boys did just that and I took the picture. She came down from the altar and thanked me. I gave her the camera. She looked at me. Her boys looked up at me. Her boys looked up at her. She looked down at her boys. The expression on her face softened. She hesitated. Then she turned to me and said very innocently, "Can we light a candle?" . 

I said, "Yes." 

It was a profound experience for me because it made me reflect. I came to the realization that I was all those mothers. I was the first mother who let her children light all the candles. I was the second mother who said, "No." I was the third mother who asked, and I was the fourth mother who said, "Yes." 

We are all mothers. This experience transcended time for 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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