Cave of Candles
Notre Dame's Grotto / by Dorothy V. Corson

Chapter 8

The Builders and Architect

John Gill was the man recorded in the financial records as being the contractor of the Grotto built in 1896. Charles McCoy, who was also listed in the 1896 ledger and was one of his brickmasons, simply vanished from the census records. This was not unusual for the 1890s. All census records, nationwide, as well as other records were lost in a fire. Property he owned was sold in 1900 to an unknown woman for one dollar. He was never heard from again. He seemed to have appeared for the building of the Grotto, lived within a block of John Gill on Main Street, and afterward left town for parts unknown.

John Gill, however, was a different matter. In an old 1884 campus work ledger, twelve years before his contract on the Grotto, there was a surprising entry with his signature at the bottom of it: "Hired John Gill to work on St. Joseph Farm for 1 year for $170.00."(143)

The first Gill listed in the telephone book proved to be his grandson, Oren Gill. His property, coincidentally, is adjacent to the Notre Dame campus. He confirmed that he was indeed the grandson of John Gill, and the son of Lawrence Gill, who were both brickmasons. "My grandfather was a masonry contractor," he said, "and my father a mason, but though I tried, I never got the hang of it and settled for something else." He was surprised to learn that his grandfather had the contract to build the Notre Dame Grotto. He was non-Catholic, he said, as his grandfather had been, and he had never heard it mentioned before.

Oren Gill was in his eighties and had no children. He said his brother, who died in 1954, had one child, a daughter, Judy Ladd. She lived in South Bend and was an art teacher at a local high school. She was a Catholic convert, he said, and he was sure she'd find the information most interesting. She was delighted and found it hard to believe that no one in the family knew about it.

John Gill also seemed to have disappeared from the city directory in the late 1890s. Another phone call to his grandson revealed more information. He had disappeared from the city directory because he had moved to the county. Oren Gill related a childhood memory of going out on a buckboard with his brother and sister to see his grandfather who lived on a farm. Oren Gill chuckled as he related how his grandfather had a touring car. When he was a little boy, he remembered his grandfather telling him how "it went 52 miles an hour and two feet off the ground."

The county recorder's office produced evidence that John Gill had indeed prospered after building the Notre Dame Grotto. His family was amazed at the land he had owned, now prime property in the Granger area. It was at about this time, 1913, that he moved to California. On June 22, 1923, John Gill, the contractor on the Grotto, died in California; he had a stroke while changing a flat tire.

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