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.

Postcard of the Grotto from the 1950s.

Postcard of the Grotto from the 1950s.


The title of this column, A Cave of Candles, is from the Internet Journal of Research, by Dorothy V. Corson, which inspired the collection of Grotto experiences that became the book, Grotto Stories: From the Heart of Notre Dame.  For more information about the Grotto, click on A Cave of Candles:  The Story Behind the Notre Dame Grotto listed on her Web site, The Spirit of Notre Dame: Its History, Legends and Lore.


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:

As a graduate student attending summer sessions in 1968, I would jog in the early evening from the center of campus to St. Mary's and back, finishing at the Grotto, where there was a drinking fountain. Even though the water was tepid, it was welcome after the run. Having slaked my temporal thirst, I would kneel for a few minutes in attempt to satisfy my spiritual needs. I would ask the Blessed Mother to intercede with her Divine Son on my behalf in such life shaping matters as passing my orals and my date with Army induction after graduation. For after all, with graduation I would enter the select group of Notre Dame men who could count themselves as being special sons of Mary.

In the following twenty-five years, no annual pilgrimage to Notre Dame was complete without a stop at the Grotto to light a candle and to request of the Blessed Mother some special intercession for a need that was paramount at that time. In 1993, my family hosted a gracious young lady of fifteen from Northern Ireland as part of the Ulster Project. The Ulster Project is a program for bringing Catholic and Protestant teenagers from strife-torn Northern Ireland to the United States for a month of intense interactivity in an attempt to show them that they can live together in peace as Catholics and Protestants do in the United States.

One weekend we took her on a tour of Ohio and Indiana so that she could see the geography and culture of the Midwest. Naturally, we had to stop at Notre Dame. She was awed by the Golden Dome, impressed by Sacred Heart Church, and thrilled by ducklings in the library reflection pool. She compared the architecture of the south quad to the buildings of Cambridge College in England where her sister was a student and politely listened to my stories of Fair Catch Corby, Number One Moses and Touchdown Jesus.

After finishing the grand tour, we sat enjoying one of her favorite American foods, ice cream, and I asked her what impressed her most about Notre Dame. She said she had never seen men kneeling in prayer in public as she had observed at the Grotto. It was just not done in Northern Ireland. She marveled at what would motivate men to display their faith in public and remarked that there must be something special about this Grotto place and the men who frequented it.

The Irish lassie understood after only a few hours what innumerable Notre Dame men have come to learn in their hearts -Notre Dame is special, and Notre Dame men are special because of Notre Dame. That specialty comes not from the buildings, the greenery of the campus, the intellectual discipline of the classroom, nor the football tradition, but from faith in and love of God and the love returned by that God, and faith that "no matter what the odds be great or small" the Mother of God will be there to comfort her sons of Notre Dame.


1968 M.A.


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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