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

Chapter 12

The Grotto in the Glen

In Father Maguire's 1953 letter of correction, in which he stated that it was Father Corby who built the 1896 Grotto and not Sorin, he made what turned out to be an erroneous, but fortuitous, statement of his own:

Father Sorin may have expressed a wish for a grotto and he may have made one somewhere on the grounds but I never saw it or heard of it. If he did construct one he probably built it on the grounds of the Sisters.

Shortly after the discovery of Father Maguire's letter, someone made the statement that there was no Grotto on the St. Mary's grounds and never had been! Such a positive statement might have been enough to discourage further research on the Notre Dame Grotto at the onset, had it not been for the discovery of an eye witness account of the remains of a Grotto in the glen at St. Mary's. It was this early clue that led to the discovery of the two previously unknown Grottoes, plus a third one in the glen.

Father Claude Boehm, who is in his early eighties, lives at Holy Cross House on the Notre Dame campus. He was the Chaplain at St. Mary's Convent for thirty years, until his retirement. When he heard of that emphatic denial, he came back with an equally affirmative reply: "Oh, but there was!" He had tripped over the remains of it himself many years before. "It was so overgrown," he said, "you wouldn't have known it was there. It's probably all overgrown again, by now, but you might still be able to find evidence of it."

He then told a charming story of how he had stumbled "head first into it," in the wooded glen between the Church of Loretto and the St. Joseph River, which borders Saint Mary's property.

He explained that in the 1950s the number of Sisters he ministered to was beginning to dwindle with fewer new Sisters coming into the order. To fill his time he used to bird watch in the glen behind the rectory.

One day he accidentally came upon the ruins of an old Grotto. It was overgrown and almost completely hidden by fallen trees. Brush and ground cover had nearly covered the floor of stones. The sides of a rising incline formed the walls of the Grotto and its niche was missing its statue. He said he spent many an afternoon there after he found it, removing the debris and weeds covering it and the area surrounding it.

In the process he discovered in the cavity of a huge tree facing the Grotto, a statue of St. Joseph. He said it was about four feet high. Sometime, during the time he spent working there, the statue mysteriously disappeared. He never saw it again.

Another time he was attacked by a nest of bees and made a hasty retreat to the rectory. The alcohol he put on the bites, he said, "was like dew from heaven."

Probably more than 35 years had passed since he had uncovered the Grotto. Would there be anything left of it? Father Boehm willingly made a map to assist in finding it. Then he decided to go along and point it out in person, raising eyebrows at the nursing station on the way out. He had not been back to St. Mary's in seven years.

He brushed aside advice not to attempt the steep road to the floor of the glen, and said he wouldn't have any trouble. A staff was fashioned from a fallen limb for him and he slowly descended the hill. At the bottom, he was soon following a rise in the ground bordered by an avenue of huge trees marching their way to the river's edge.

Then the niche appeared, barely visible, over the top of the rise. A slight incline had to be negotiated to reach the floor of the meadow directly facing the empty niche. A huge dead limb crisscrossed the front of the Grotto area narrowly missing the stone niche, the only part still visible and intact. Brush, branches and overgrown ground cover, along with sand washed down from the bank, almost obliterated the scene. Yet, with a little imagination and a brushing away of weeds and dirt, one could see that a very presentable facsimile of a Grotto had once enhanced the meadow it had been placed in.

The blue blossoms of myrtle periwinkle were opening, flooding the greenery with Our Lady's blue. Beside the niche, was a blossoming trillium as if to herald the arrival of long awaited visitors. Photographs were taken to document the Grotto that never was, or at least had been long forgotten.

It was unlikely Father Sorin had built this Grotto as he was known for doing things on a grand scale. The stones appeared to be no larger than could have been carried from the riverbank by two Sisters. Still, there was so little left of it, it was hard to tell. Its setting in the wilderness launched an exploration of its origin.

It became a key piece in researching the story behind the Notre Dame Grotto, because it led to the discovery of Mother Angela's early indoor Grotto built in 1874, and the first outdoor Grotto built at Notre Dame in 1878 by Father Sorin.

A mention of the Grotto in the glen in a chance meeting with a Sister at Saint Mary's, revealed someone still living who had worked on it, and the approximate time it was built. "Oh yes, I remember the Grotto in the glen," she said. "It was completed just before I entered the order, probably around 1937." She said she wasn't there when it was built, but she knew a Sister who worked on it and she was living at the convent infirmary.

Sister Miriam Kathryn was able to confirm the approximate 1937 date of the Grotto and she explained the original story behind its beginnings. She said building the Grotto in the glen was the idea of her Mistress of Novices, a project that was begun and completed by them in their recreation time. Thirty to forty novices took turns working on the Grotto. Half worked at the laundry and half on the Grotto. The Sisters gathered the stones, as large as they could carry, from the riverbanks where there had once been a stone retaining wall, now all but washed away by the strong current of the St. Joseph River. Two Sisters would stand on the small bluff and pass the stones to the Sisters below, who then put them in place on the incline walls of the Grotto.

As near as she knew no pictures were ever taken of it. She said she would love to see the Grotto uncovered and used again as it was, for a brief period of time, when the Sisters regularly used the glen for recreational purposes.

However, as time went by, it became more and more isolated, not a good place for the Sisters to go alone or with companions. Eventually, as the college grew, security became a problem and it became off limits for any kind of recreational activities. The statue disappeared from the niche, and gradually, with the passage of time, weather and erosion, the wilderness reclaimed it. The Grotto in the Glen, where violets, myrtle and wild flowers bloom in profusion, is visited of late mainly by chipmunks, squirrels and ground hogs. The cheerful voices and songs of the Sisters are gone forever.

St. Angela's Island

Saint Mary's Cushwa-Leighton College Library became a source for more than books associated with early Notre Dame and St. Mary's history. Bob Hohl, their long time reference librarian, became an encouraging influence in the search for historical information at Saint Mary's, offering insightful suggestions along the way. He was particularly interested in seeing the bulky 1878 maps of Notre Dame and St. Mary's before they were stored away for safekeeping.

On the 1878 map of the St. Mary's campus, he noticed a place in the glen labeled as a pond. It must have triggered something in his memory, because he said, "You know, I've often wondered about something I've read in Eugene O'Neill's Nobel prize winning play, Long Day's Journey Into Night. (210) He speaks of his mother and the girl's school she attended in the Midwest. Others who have read it, thought it might have been St. Mary's. An island is also mentioned in connection with the school. Let me know if you run across any information about it."

The 1878 St. Joseph County map had a numbered listing of all the buildings on both campuses. A reference to a St. Angela's Island was on it that had gone unnoticed before. It was in the St. Joseph River, barely visible without a magnifying glass, a short distance off the shoreline. A lane led to it. How large it was, and whether there was a causeway to it, was not discernible.

An 1865 Guide to Notre Dame and St. Mary's mentions the island:

This lovely island like an emerald gem in the bosom of the placid St. Joseph is a favorite place of recreation for the pupils and is popular among the young ladies as a resort for fishing and summer picnics.(211)

St. Angela's Island is Dedicated in 1857

A St. Mary's history book described an interesting event centered on the island one hundred and thirty-eight year ago. It occurred when Father Moreau, the founder of the Holy Cross Order, arrived at Notre Dame from Europe on his first visit to the New World. While visiting the newly established St. Mary's Academy, he dedicated St. Angela's Island and blessed its altar and statue of Mary. It was later referred to as the shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes. A special welcome was planned for him by Mother Angela.

The summer of 1857 filled the community's cup of joy to the brim. It brought a visit from Father Moreau. Long had the father founder desired to see the fruit of his children's labors in foreign lands. It was twenty years since he had founded his congregation . . . .

Business did not exclude pleasure, however, as an account of the blessing of Saint Angela's Island clearly shows. It was the feast of Our Lady's Nativity. . . .

In an earlier book, On the King's Highway, Sr. M. Eleanore, C.S.C., records Mother M. Elizabeth's detailed description of the elaborate ceremony she witnessed.

By way of preparation Mother M. Angela borrowed from town several bolts of muslin for decorative purposes. Joseph and a few other men hired for the day hauled brushwood to make bonfires at short distances apart on the way to the island. Under a large tree on the island they erected an altar, which the Sisters decorated with candles and wildflowers. On a wire between the trees in front of the altar they hung a large lamp frame made of white down and feathers. On the trees along the path leading to the altar they put small tin holders for candles and nailed pictures under them. The bridge was draped in muslin and was lit by colored lamps.

In the afternoon the Sister sacristan at Notre Dame sent over to the Academy parlor the surplices of the priests. There was an early supper, after which all the Sisters from St. Mary's and from Notre Dame formed in procession with lighted candles. At seven o'clock Father Rector and the clergy having been invited to what they supposed was a little entertainment, came from Notre Dame, took chairs, placed them in front of the Academy, and began to smoke and enjoy themselves in the company of Mother M. Angela and her Council. When the bell rang, Mother invited the clergy into the parlor and asked them to put on their surplices. They were somewhat surprised until Mother told them that the Sisters wished to have Father Rector bless the island. At her request the clergy took ranks. She then opened the back door of the Academy to disclose to their astonished gaze the illuminated path which seemed a fairyland of light. Father Moreau stood as if entranced.

The long procession filed through the woods, singing as they went. In half an hour they reached the rustic bridge, where the Sisters halted in ranks through which the clergy passed. Father Moreau blessed the island, giving it the name of St. Angela. Father Sorin and Father Sheil, Provincial of New Orleans, were his assistants. After the blessing Father Rector spoke to us in French, which Father Sheil translated for us. Father Moreau expressed his extreme pleasure over finding in the woods of far-off Indiana such great love for the Mother of God and promised that he would never forget the heavenly scene he witnessed that evening on ground consecrated to Mary Immaculate. He said he had much to say, but the American night birds sang so loud he could not make himself heard. These night birds were the katy-dids and the tree frogs who were shouting their protest against this invasion of light and human sound into their own domain. No matter what katy did or didn't do on other occasions, on that night, at least, she out-talked a whole religious community. Some few persons complained to Father Moreau because Mother M. Angela had burned so many candles; but he reminded them of a certain box of ointment once poured on the Master's feet.(212)

Eugene O'Neill's play, Long Day's Journey Into Night, was written in 1940. He received the Nobel prize for it in 1957, after his death. It referred to his mother going to a convent in the Midwest. Although it did not give the name of the school, throughout the whole autobiographical play there were references to his mother and a number of one or two line mentions of a convent in at least ten different places. The last and most lengthy reference on the last page of the play refers to O'Neill's mother:

I told Mother Elizabeth I wanted to be a nun. I explained how sure I was of my vocation, that I had prayed to the Blessed Virgin to make me sure, and to find me worthy. I told Mother I had had a true vision when I was praying in the shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes, on the little island. . . . I said I knew, as surely as I knew I was kneeling there, that the Blessed Virgin had smiled and blessed me with her consent. But Mother Elizabeth told me I must be more sure than that, even, that I must prove it wasn't simply my imagination . . . . I never dreamed Holy Mother would give me such advice! After I left her, I felt all mixed up, so I went to the shrine and prayed to the Blessed Virgin and found peace again because I knew she heard my prayer and would always love me and see no harm ever came to me so long as I never lost my faith in her. . . . That was the winter of my senior year. Then in the spring something happened to me. Yes, I remember. I fell in love with James Tyrone . . . .(213)

Eugene O'Neill's mother, Ellen Quinlan, graduated from St. Mary's and his father, James O'Neill, graduated from Notre Dame. Edward Fischer quotes Marion McCandless on this famous couple in his book:

As a married couple they later traveled up and down the land together. James O'Neill was one of the great tragedians of his day. His Monte Cristo will always remain a classic of the American stage. But the greatest contribution the O'Neills made to the theater was to give it their son, Eugene, the famous playwright.(214)

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