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 postcard from the early part of the century, circa 1906.

An postcard from the early part of the century, circa 1906.



And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed
with the sun, and the moon under her feet: and on her
head a crown of twelve stars. --Apoc. xii.,I.


The August moonlight silvers all the dome!

How many summers thus? what lifted eyes---

That since have known beginning of their peace

In gazing on one Face--have gleaned this sight?

How many shall, when mine perchance have met

The fadeless Vision?

Pray God, until the moon

Is made the fixed footstool of her feet,

And all the stars, compact in golden twelve,

Shall glimmer deathless round her perfect brow,

May Mary stand 'twixt heaven and Notre Dame.



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 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:

1996 marks the 100th anniversary of the Lourdes Grotto at Notre Dame and the 46th year of my involvement on the University of Notre Dame campus. During that time, the Grotto has meant more to me than any other campus landmark: more inspiration, more spiritual charge and, in times of despair, more consolation. I first set eyes on the Grotto when, quite by accident, on my first day on campus in 1950, I found myself sitting there in despair and confusion, after having been told by the good Brother Superior that, in his opinion, I really didn't want to be a Holy Cross Brother. It was here, to the Grotto, that I brought my troubled mind and it was here, by the grace of God, that an unidentified Brother appeared who, recognizing my torment, suggested that perhaps I would be more interested in training to be a Brother in the Priests' Province. These Brothers, be said, were trained to work in offices and departments at Notre Dame, an exciting and rewarding life about which Father Daniel O'Neill, the vocations director, would be happy to talk with me. Even in the short time I had been on campus, I sensed that this was a special place where one could find happiness in a dedicated life. I agreed to talk with Father O'Neill and set in motion the wheels that would take me on a long journey, fascinating and exciting, through the worlds of spirituality and sports on the Notre Dame campus. Though this journey has culminated in a full circle, taking me back to the Grotto where it began, the journey is not over. In these, my "retirement" years, I seldom miss a Rosary at the Grotto, often leading the hymn singing and praying of the decades. Sometimes on a cold and blustery Christmas Eve, when the students have abandoned the campus and snow covers the ground around the Nativity scene, Brother Beatus and I are the only semblance of the faithful, but the Rosary is recited. And usually, at some point during these Christmas Eve rosaries, Brother Dennis, chief sacristan of Sacred Heart Basilica, can be seen trudging through the snow to place the infant Jesus in the crib.

Senior years are an adventure, I believe, a special gift from God. I count my days in privileged moments, the most rewarding of these moments coming at the end of each day in prayer at the Grotto. It is a constant reminder of the peaceful beauty of God's creation, leading me beyond what can be seen to the Unseen One who walks beside me on life's journey. Perhaps I am most indebted to the Grotto because it was there that I received the inspiration for the ministries which have kept me active in the Lord's work. The first fruits of this inspiration was SERV; Students Encouraging Religious Vocations, approved by the University in 1990 and still showing tangible evidence of success. On the heels of this success came the inspiration for The National Legion of SERV, helping high schools, colleges and parish vocation committees around the country to establish SERV clubs. Most recently came the inspiration for the Saint Peregrine Prayer Society, an international network of people praying to Saint Peregrine for his intercession to bring down God's healing and compassion on those who suffer from cancer and other life-threatening diseases.

Unlike the Golden Dome, Notre Dame's familiar landmark and shining symbol of its tradition, the Grotto touches lives in a quiet, more meaningful and precious way. If I were to pick the perfect time and place to extol the beauty, both natural and spiritual, of the Notre Dame campus, it most certainly would be 6:45 in the evening at the Grotto. It is precisely at that moment, every day of the year, without exception, that the Holy Rosary is recited in devotion to the Lady after whom the University is named. And it is at that time, for the better part of the year, that the sun is setting beyond the mirrored lake of St. Mary's, splashing its rays of reds, pinks and blues across the stone face of the Grotto and onto the white and blue image of Our Lady as she looks down from her perch in the rocks. I have already mentioned the Grotto's warmth on a blustery winter's eve. The days of summer, too, are a time of grace at the Grotto. The quiet evenings when we are joined by a few summer school students trying in six short weeks to become a part of the spirit of the place. And autumn, of course, is that special time of year when Mother Nature spreads her most colorful carpet; when red fires smolder on trees, on ivy-covered walls, and on the eternal stone face of the Grotto, drawing to itself the multitudes of football fans who descend on the campus. I cannot count the number of people I have met at the Grotto who have become life-long friends and partners in prayer. I would be willing to forfeit the rest of my life if I could be buried in the immediate vicinity of my beloved Grotto. That being impossible, however, it fills my heart with peace knowing that I will be buried in the Notre Dame addition to Cedar Grove Cemetery, just a short walk from the Grotto's peaceful and serene surroundings.

How many lives have been touched by this monument to Mary? How many tears have been shed in relief at her feet? Like the mysteries of the Rosary itself, they embrace the joyful, the sorrowful and the glorious.





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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