Tom Dooley and More Grotto Impressions
No story about the Grotto would be complete without the personal expression of a former student whose memory will always be associated with the Notre Dame Grotto. Possibly the most celebrated Grotto experience in Notre Dame history was expressed by Dr. Tom Dooley, in the form of a letter sent to Father Ted Hesburgh shortly before his death in 1961. It was placed at the kneeling rail of the Grotto by Father Hesburgh to inspire future generations.
More than one visitor to the Grotto has discerned his religious vocation there. And at least one student, after reading Tom Dooley's letter, decided to become a third-world doctor. Over the years, it has been an inspiration to many who pause to read it. An exact copy of Dooley's letter is quoted in the appendix of A Cave of Candles: The Story Behind the Notre Dame Grotto.
Dr. Thomas A. Dooley, '48 died on the evening of January 18 in a New York hospital. Five days before his death he was visited by Father Hesburgh, who relayed his request for prayers back to the Notre Dame campus. "The Splendid American" died just as the Notre Dame student body had completed three days of prayer in his behalf. A Solemn Mass of Requiem was celebrated for him January 20 in Sacred Heart Church.
In December Father Hesburgh had received a letter from Hong Kong, where Tom Dooley had been hospitalized for a recurrence of cancer that had attacked his spine. An eloquent expression of the faith that had overcome his terrible suffering and prompted his labors in Southeast Asia, a moving tribute to his beloved Notre Dame, the letter was distributed by Associated Press and printed throughout the world after Dooley's death."
Later, a duplicate of the letter,(247) engraved on stainless steel and enclosed in a box with a Plexiglas top, was attached permanently to the kneeling rail of the Grotto.
Tom Dooley was born on January 17, 1927 and died the day after his 34th birthday, on January 18, 1961, just six weeks after his December 2, 1960 letter was written from Hong Kong. In it, he speaks of the comfort of prayer. In part:
. . . Because I can pray, I can communicate. How do people endure anything on earth if they cannot have God?
I realize the external symbols that surround one when he prays are not important. . . . It is the Something else there that counts.
But just now. . . and just so many times, how I long for the Grotto. Away from the Grotto Dooley just prays. But at the Grotto, especially now when there must be snow everywhere and the lake is ice glass and that triangular fountain on the left is frozen solid and all the priests are bundled in their too-large too-long old black coats and the students wear snow boots. . . . if I could go to the Grotto now then I think I could sing inside. I could be full of faith and poetry and loveliness and know more beauty, tenderness and compassion. . . .
In 1959, a year and six months before his letter was sent to Fr. Hesburgh, Tom Dooley wrote another poignant letter in which he mentioned the Grotto. He wrote it in reply to a letter sent to him by a man in Elkhart who had gone to premed school with him. Tom apologized for his delay in replying and mentioned that he answered 600-2000 letters a month. He concluded the letter, from the Village of Muong Sing, with this reference to the Notre Dame Grotto:
Oh, to be able to get on my knees in the Grotto of Our Lady just now! I know that God is everywhere. He's everywhere here. We see him daily in 100 wretched who come to the clinic. We see him in the mountains. We see him in the monsoon rainfall on the thatched roof. We know Him when he outstretches His arm in the thunder. But to be in the grotto at Notre Dame; there I find propinquity. There I have nearness that no rationalization can replace.
Village of Muong Sing
Kingdom of Laos
May 25, 1959(248)
Three years after his death, Father Thomas O'Donnell wrote about Tom Dooley's poignant letter at the Grotto in the Notre Dame Scholastic :
Sickness is a great thought provoker. When a person knows his disease or affliction is terminal he reaches back and grasps the great moments that helped him in the past and perhaps can help him now. This was the way with Tom Dooley. With aching fingers he spoke his heart on a typewriter. It does the soul good and warms our hearts to pause in our haste and remember the unhastening hours and the sun that dials its seasons on the aging stone of the Grotto.(249)
Tom Dooley's letter was placed at the Grotto four months after his death. Father Hesburgh assigned the project to Rev. Robert Lochner, C.S.C., who engineered the actual placement of the letter. A close examination of Dooley's letter, and the box in which it is contained, shows the care taken in planning it. The container is not only durable, it has weathered the thirty five years it had been there with no sign of leakage.
A call to Father Bob Lochner in Cocoa Beach, Florida, to inquire about it brought another Grotto story to add to a growing collection. A most affable man, he was friendly and outgoing, and especially interested in the Grotto. He said he felt honored that Father Hesburgh had asked him to research a way to put it permanently at the Grotto. It made him feel close to the Blessed Virgin, and more a part of it.
He explained that the letter was engraved on stainless steel because at that time they were doing the same thing with diplomas, which were then mounted on a block of wood. Through the Notre Dame Hammes Bookstore, he made an arrangement for the letter to be replicated in the same manner. It was framed in the black box, with a Plexiglas top, to protect it. Father Lochner said the Grotto was his favorite spot on campus. He checks the letter every time he visits Notre Dame and is pleased to find that it is still in excellent shape.
He said his next visit to the campus would be on his golden jubilee in 1996. When he learned the Grotto would be one hundred years old the same year, he said he would look forward to saying Mass there to commemorate the occasion. It was an interesting coincidence he hadn't been aware of before.