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.


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:

At the beginning of October you could see the fall season in the green, yellow, brown and maroon leaves on the campus. The air smelled dry and burnt. The temperature was in the upper 50s during the day, which made sleeping in Howard Hall almost a joy since the steamy start we felt in September when we entered our second year in college. The time was October 1962 and everything was going well.

Dick, my roommate, and I settled into Howard for our sophomore year. We were close to the old Memorial Library, we had a few friends, and our confidence to succeed in college had markedly increased since last year. This cozy mood crumbled quickly when we saw television reports about missiles the Russians had covertly placed in Cuba. President Kennedy announced a tough political stance, calling for immediate and complete removal of the weapons. This was a clear case of a possible fight between the two most powerful countries in existence. We weren't watching two teenagers from Chicago argue about whose car was faster.

Dick and I didn't talk a lot about the news reports but we knew that both of us were very worried. We talked regularly but there was little humor in our stories. Dick didn't say as much about his future wife, Kathy. I stopped wondering if and when I would get my own car. We had finished a fairly successful year at Notre Dame and thought we were over many of the obstacles found in the first year. We knew how to study for exams, where to hide to do serious work, when to line up for dinner in the South Dining Hall, and who to talk to for help. As we debated the moment in history that would become known as the "Cuban Missile Crisis," we were afraid to lose our comfortable circumstances and chances for success we dreamed about. Our families were not close to comfort us. I was a three hour drive from Chicago and Dick was at least a three hour flight from New Jersey. We were 19 years old and images of being drafted in the Army quickly came to mind. World War II ended when we learned to ride tricycles, and we began third grade during the Korean War. Was it now our time to face war?

We found it almost impossible to concentrate on class work as everyone waited to see what would come of Kennedy's challenge to Khrushchev. How were we supposed to handle the anxiety from a confrontation that had such massive potential to destroy our way of life? This experience created feelings reminiscent of those from the A-bomb threats during the Cold War Fifties when bomb shelters were going to preserve our lives and when we practiced hiding under wooden desks to shield ourselves from nuclear attack.

In the past year Dick and I had gone to the Grotto to ask for insight and guidance with exams and term papers. We also liked walking around St. Mary's and St. Joseph's Lakes after dinner and always stopped to pray. We now sensed that going to the Grotto was the only action we could take to handle our feelings of disruption and possible loss. The evening was clear and comfortable as we approached from Howard. There weren't any more visitors than usual. We knelt on the hard metal frames, offered our petitions in silence and lit votive candles. I asked for peace and the chance to finish school. It was selfish to pray this way but we were frightened. I don't recall what we offered as our end of the bargain with Mary and her Son. We probably made it a one-sided request. After ten minutes of silent praying, lighting candles, and looking around, we walked away feeling relieved, as though a weight, a burden, a responsibility was lifted from us.

I don't remember how long it was before we heard that the Missile Crisis was over, but during the waiting period Dick and I did not worry as much as we had before our Grotto visit on that cool October evening in 1962.





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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