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.

A real-photo postcard image of the Grotto from 1912.

A real-photo postcard image of the Grotto from 1912.


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: The Story behind the Notre Dame Grotto


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:

I wish to add these anecdotes of the lore and the lure of the Grotto at Notre Dame. I was born and reared in South Bend at 1004 E. St. Vincent St. - within sight of the Golden Dome. Since the days I was able to walk, then ride a bike out to the campus, it always include a visit to the Grotto -to touch a stone from the Grotto at Lourdes imbedded in the wall, then light a candle to help send my prayers heavenward.

I was one of six sons of Thomas L. and Kathryn B. Hickey, who graduated from Notre Dame. Most often after class, before walking home, a visit was made to the Grotto. In June, 1944, as a Naval officer before leaving for duty at N.A.S. Pearl Harbor, my then fiance, Mary Hennigan (now my wife of 50 years) came ftom Boston for a "bon voyage" visit. We made daily visits to the Grotto imploring Our Lady's blessings for our future well-being and happiness. She didn't fail us. She heard our petitions.

On my first day back from the Pacific Theater in 1946, my Mary was waiting for me at my parents' home. Our first mission was a visit to the Grotto the next day to give thanks and to ask Our Lady's protection as we approached our wedding in September, 1946. My Mary and I placed our marriage in the protective hands of Mary, the Mother of God. We were blessed with five children. On our visits to my parents in South Bend from New England, my wife and I always brought the children out to the campus -and a visit to the Grotto -to allow them to absorb its sacred majesty. Soon they would ask us, "When can we visit the Grotto?"

We then knew of its lure.

Later, our three sons enrolled and graduated with honors from Notre Dame. Still later, after marriage, they would bring their families for visits to Notre Dame -and pilgrimages down to the Grotto, so their children would be imbued with its awesomeness.

In July 1994 our son, Brian, moved from PIano, Texas, to New Jersey. His wife flew with their daughter. Brian drove with the two sons, Brian, Jr. and Justin. They left Texas morning at 8 a.m. and drove through to Notre Dame's Morris Inn, arriving at 1 a.m. The boys had asked their dad if they could get a reservation on campus. Before going to bed and after driving for 16 hours, the boys said that they would like to first walk down for a visit at the Grotto. My son, and my wife and I also, were awed by this scene of their walking along the paths on a warm, full moon night -seeing the Golden Dome lighted brightly and then arriving at their peaceful sanctuary of the Grotto, all ablaze with burning candles. They had come back to their home away from home, asking for Our Lady's protection and blessings for themselves and their family, as they headed east to their new home and new friends.

This is a story that I needed to relate. The visit at 1 a.m. on that July night by the two boys with their father has been a source of pride and inspiration for my Mary and me -sensing that Our Lady continues to love us and will protect our family and ourselves all the days of our lives.


CLASS OF 1944, 1947



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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