Cave of Candles
Notre Dame Legends and Lore / by Dorothy V. Corson

Christmas Eve at the Grotto

The Nativity scene at the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes
on the campus of the University of Notre Dame
by Dennis White / Courtesy South Bend Tribune.
"The Golden Dome serves as the beckoning star."

Every now and then in the process of historical research one finds a gem of a story or a photograph that has undoubtedly found an appreciative audience when it was created but is then filed away and forgotten until someone new stumbles upon it again by chance. That’s why it’s called re-search. It’s in the process of ongoing research by numerous dedicated archival detectives that gems of thought and one-of-a-kind photographs are discovered all over again and reborn in a new time frame.

This is a story of just one of those discoveries, this beautiful photograph of the nativity scene at the Notre Dame Grotto of Lourdes. It now occupies a very special place in a collection of Grotto Photographs preserved for future generations in the University Archives.

The Notre Dame Grotto celebrated its 100th Anniversary on August 5, 1996. At the end of that same year the “Christmas Eve at the Grotto” photograph, pictured above, appeared in black and white on the cover of the 1996-97 Newsletter put out by the Fatima Retreat Center on campus. I had never seen a photograph of the Grotto quite like it before. There was so much of interest in it. I could only imagine how special it would be in color. A call to the editor of the Newsletter brought no information about the origin of the photograph. No one there knew where the photograph came from and neither a print or a scan of it on their computer could be found. It might have been given to Fatima years before. No amount of searching for other avenues to pursue brought any results. Reluctantly, I put the black and white version in the Newsletter in my Grotto Photograph Collection, anyway, as the next best thing to finding a color print of it. Just in case by some quirk of fate it might turn up.

That was six years ago. Recently, I was looking for an old letter in my correspondence file on my computer when I ran across a document I had written in 1994 titled “Notes on Log Chapel reburials.” Curious, I opened it, and eight years later the memory of it came flooding back. One day I was thumbing through old issues of the Province Review, a Newsletter put out by the priests and brothers of the Holy Cross order. I was looking for something else, when I ran across a brief article with illustrations detailing the exhumation of the bodies of three early missionary priests in the Sacred Heart Church and their reburial in the Log Chapel. The article stated that the move had been done very quietly and news of it had appeared only in the Newsletter and nowhere else. I must have thought at the time that it would be a worthy project, if it was still possible, to record more details of this earlier historic event for the archives. And so in 1994, I contacted the funeral director, Patrick McGann and the rector of the church, Fr. Jenky, mentioned in the article, who had directed the reburials. It was just an interesting bit of little known history to record while those who had witnessed it were still around. I then wrote down their description of it in my notes and set them aside for future use.

In being reminded of my Log Chapel '94 notes, now, eight years later, it suddenly dawned on me that the Log Chapel, like the Grotto, would also be celebrating its centenary in 2006, and I had just the research for it. I had already helped create a small illustrated booklet, based on my research, to commemorate the Notre Dame Grotto's centenary on Lourdes Day, 1996. And recently, I compiled seven articles for the South Bend Tribune excerpted from my Internet manuscript about a German Missionary’s diary recounting his several weeks stay in the Log Chapel in 1840. In it, he describes in detail the interior of the chapel and the services in the loft he conducted for the Indian converts. Why not a booklet with excerpts from the German Missionary's diary and the details of the three Missionaries reburials there to commemorate the Log Chapel's centenary? But first I would need a copy of the article as proof of the reburials.

Unfortunately, I had neglected to write down the exact date of the article. I had only the 1994 date on my notes to go by. But I did remember seeing a photograph of an opened coffin in the article which might make it easier to spot. Even if I had to go through several years of newsletters, I was determined to find it. More than an hour had gone by without any luck looking in the early nineties. I randomly grabbed the next three folders, 1987, '88 and '89 figuring if it wasn’t in them I’d better give up on it. I picked up the March issue flipping through the pages in haste. When I turned it over on the backside to start the next one, I couldn’t believe it. There on the back of the March, 1989 issue was, not the log chapel reburial article I was searching for, but something else I had given up finding over six years before -- the beautiful Christmas Eve Grotto photograph -- and this time it was in stunning color! Shortly afterward in the March, 1987 folder, I found the log chapel reburial article that had led me to it. In the words of Professor Joseph Campbell, “Follow your bliss and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.”

I photocopied the reburial article and went looking for Kevin Cawley, the Webmaster. He was as surprised as I was having remembered how impressed I’d been with the photograph when I first saw it in black and white. He took it back to his office to scan it. When he returned he showed me a problem with it I hadn’t noticed in the surprise of finding it. The Newsletter had been folded to mail it and there was a very noticeable purple line across the middle of the scan. Using PhotoShop on it didn't do it justice, but it would have to do, it was all we had.

However, this time the color photo in the Province Review had a photo credit under it -- South Bend Tribune photo by Dennis White. And these lines below the photograph, placed there by the editor of the Province Review, solved a six year mystery. This picture was in the February, 1988 issue of Province Review last year -- in black and white. It was captioned, as in the South Bend Tribune, “The Nativity scene at the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes on the campus of the University of Notre Dame. The Golden Dome serves as the beckoning star. Your editor could not resist rerunning the picture this year -- in color.”

I knew Fr. Wilson, the editor of the Province Review and was pleased to know that we shared the same feelings about this photograph. He must have been charmed by it too, especially having seen it in color. However he was now retired at Holy Cross House on campus and failing fast. His long-term memory was gone. But when I showed him the scan we had made of it he nodded his head and his smiling eyes lit up with recognition. Everything else about it was a blur, but I knew he remembered it. He departed this earth several weeks later at the age of 92.

Obviously, someone at Fatima had acquired it from Fr. Wilson sometime between 1989 and 1996, and later their editor had decided to use it in black and white in their 1996/97 Newsletter. It had lain dormant for another six years before it resurfaced again. First in 1989, then 1996, and now in 2002. Finding an actual print of the photo was a long shot because the photograph was now, I thought, 13 years old, but I decided to see if the photographer might be listed in the telephone book and just might have saved prints of his best photographs.

Dennis White, the photographer, also retired, dashed that hope immediately. He explained that it was just about impossible for photographers to keep prints with all the photographs taken in their career. But, he did suggest the possibility that the Tribune might have a library of their prints, if I could establish the date it appeared in the newspaper. It was easier than I thought it would be to locate it on microfilm at the St. Joseph County Public Library History Room. Fr. Wilson had written below the picture that he had run a black and white version of it in February of 1988 so that meant it must have appeared in the paper before 1988. There were no Grotto photographs in the Tribune in December of 1988 but thankfully there it was on Christmas Eve, December 24, 1987, 15 years ago!

I wrote a letter to the photo editor enclosing a microfilm copy of the dated photograph and waited, hoping that with all the necessary information at hand they just might be able to locate a print in their files. Several weeks went by before I received the disappointing news. He was sorry to report that a thorough search of their library and files revealed no evidence of the print. When I asked him if he would give us permission to use the doctored scanned version he said he would and he was sorry he could not provide us with the original glossy.

That evening I called Dennis White again to let him know the outcome. And to thank him, once again, for his suggestions and his kindness in taking the time to talk to a stranger with a strange request. He said he was sorry that it hadn't turned up. That it was a photograph he remembered as special too.

That was Friday. On Sunday evening the telephone rang. An unfamiliar voice on the other end of the line asked if I was Dorothy Corson. I said I was but I didn’t recognize the voice until he said, “This is Dennis White, and I’m calling to tell you that my wife urged me to make another search for the photograph you asked about and I found it, most unexpectedly. I have it here for you if you’d like to pick it up.” I had already told the webmaster on Friday that we would have to make do with the doctored version we had. I thought I must be dreaming and I knew I wouldn't be able to believe it until I saw it in my hands.

I made arrangements to pick it up at his home the next day. I think he was as amazed as I was that he had found it and he explained how it might have happened. He said he had introduced the Tribune to scanning when it was first being done and in order to check the quality of the reproduction from the scan he had taken prints of a couple of the first photographs he had scanned home with him to compare them with the reproduction in the newspaper that evening. One of them just happened to be the Christmas photograph! Probably because it was a night photograph with a lot of color in it. For those who may be interested, Dennis said it was taken with a Nikon camera, on a tripod, with a short time lapse exposure.

I autographed a copy of Grotto Stories: From the Heart of Notre Dame as a heartfelt thank you to Dennis and his wife Julie and left his historic home overlooking the St. Joseph River feeling as if I were walking on air. Fr. Hesburgh’s encouraging words early in my research were ringing in my ears: “You’ll never know if you don’t try.” Truer words were never spoken!

-- Dorothy V. Corson
    Lourdes Day, 2002