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

Fire at Grotto Reveals its Importance to Many

Excerpts from an article written by a student, Mike Wilkins, shortly after the Grotto fire, catch the essence of the Spirit of Notre Dame, the Grotto, and the effect it has had upon its many visitors. He has also expressed, with heartfelt feeling, the point of view of those many students for whom the Grotto was primarily intended.

His article appeared in the Observer on October 4, 1985, under the title: "Fire at Grotto reveals its importance to many." Mike wrote it ten days after the fire as a personal expression of his feelings about the Grotto and its close call. I am sure it also touched the hearts of many students new to the Grotto experience and what it represents on campus.

I walked down to the Grotto the other night and was very pleased to find it virtually back to normal. That place has come to mean an awful lot to me in the four-plus years I've been here, and looking at its charred shell last week was quite hard to take.

When I first came to Notre Dame, I didn't even know the Grotto existed. I stumbled on it by accident one day as I was walking around St. Mary's Lake. I was immediately impressed with its beauty and the peaceful feeling it seemed to create in everyone who stopped to pray.

Within a month or two, the Grotto had become a pretty regular part of my life. I didn't go there every day, but when I needed a little lift or just a break from the pressures of freshman year, the Grotto was always the first place to go.

I can remember breaking up with my girlfriend from home that year. The night I realized things were finally over I walked down to the Grotto and had a good cry. Being there did not make my problems go away, but it sure made me feel a lot more at peace with what had happened.

Not too long after that, I had wandered down for a late night prayer and there was a girl sitting on a bench crying. After much hesitation, I sat down next to her and asked her what was wrong and if she'd like to talk about it. I have no idea what made me do it. Since I had been in the same position myself, it just seemed to be the right thing to do. My Hawaiian roommate at the time called it the Aloha Spirit. I do not know what it was, but I know there was something about being so close to God that made me want to help that girl, even though she was a total stranger.

Sophomore year I spent some of the worst moments of my life at the Grotto. One of my best friends was killed in an automobile accident and I was bitter and angry. I lit candles, knelt on the kneelers, sat on the benches, wandered around the grassy area between the Grotto and the lakes -- all the while questioning God. I went there frequently after my friend died, mad at God every time.

Yet even through my anger, I felt that when I was at the Grotto, God was near me and He was trying to make me understand what had happened. . . .

Last year, the Grotto became more than just a convenient link to God, but a link to my days at Notre Dame as well. Just before graduation, when the seniors made their last trip to the Grotto, I carried a candle from Sacred Heart Church to the Grotto. I can still remember exactly where I placed my candle. . . . That spot remains a link between me and my memories of the previous four years. It has made the Grotto . . . a symbol of Notre Dame and all this place has come to mean to me. . . .

I guess if anything good could possibly have come from last week's fire it is that I now appreciate the Grotto more and realize more fully the unique role it plays in my life and the lives of many others around campus. . . . (254)

Three weeks after the Grotto Fire, on October 15, 1985, Tom Dooley's humanitarian efforts were recognized on campus with a statue, donated by the Alumni Association. Dr. Tom Dooley became famous in the 1950s as the "jungle doctor of Laos." It was placed just west of the Grotto on the path leading to the legendary sycamore.

By the time Dooley died in 1961, he had saved literally thousands of Southeast Asians. The statue shows Dooley posed with two Laotian children. . . . The Grotto was a favorite meditating place for Dooley during his years at Notre Dame. . . . Placing the statue near the Grotto is fitting, Father Jenky said, because of how Dooley cherished the place and affirmed this in his letter to Hesburgh.(255)

In the summer of 1996, during the celebration of its centennial, the Grotto's surroundings were newly landscaped. Dooley's letter at the kneeling rail was moved beside his statue and the area was landscaped with decorative plantings. Later a Memorial Bench was placed beside it. On it was this heartfelt tribute honoring another Navy doctor who loved the Grotto and died young.

Memory of
Daniel C. Gaughan, M.D. '88
Keeper of the Grotto, Assistant Sacristan
Lt. Commander, Flight Surgeon, U.S.N.R.
Here he lies in the land of legends;
his heart of gold came home to rest.

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