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

A New Focus on the Grotto

Timothy Howard penned this ageless tribute to the University dedicated to Our Lady of the Lake over a hundred years ago. It is as true today as it was then: "Whoever leaves Notre Dame hopes to see it again."(256)

The same could be said of the Grotto. It occupies one of the most quiet, secluded sites on campus. Its purpose has been realized because she is seldom alone. Students and visitors pause, throughout the night and day, to pray and perhaps light a candle.

An article in the Observer printed on February 13, 1986, five months after the fire, brought renewed attention to this lovely campus shrine when the threat of loss was focused upon it.

In a portion of that impressive article, Kathy Martin the feature staff writer, speaks of the student experience:

Scarcely a student passes through the challenges, dilemmas, and triumphs of four college years here without taking refuge at one time or another in the peaceful silence of a moment of reflection before hundreds of glowing candles which are special prayers to the Virgin Mary. It is part of the Notre Dame experience and tradition.

The writer quotes the Rector of Sacred Heart Church:

Father Daniel R. Jenky, Rector of Sacred Heart Church, described the Grotto today as a place where "even non-church-goers feel they can go to be quiet and pray." He said that the atmosphere is "unselfconscious and unpretentious, where normal, active people can share faith without it being a big deal." Father Jenky noted the reaction of a visiting Canadian priest to the enormous numbers of students who came to the Grotto to pray, "At Notre Dame, there is still the atmosphere that gives people permission to pray without looking like they're doing anything weird."

Kathy Martin also quotes former Notre Dame President, Father Theodore Hesburgh, who usually visits the Grotto every day when he is on campus:

"I really believe that Our Lady watches over this place. I feel I ought to stop in and say thanks, and also pray that she keeps watching over it." he said. "I usually get down there in the wee hours of the morning when I leave the office," he continued. "There is almost always someone down there, rain, sleet, or snow . . . . Every university has a place where students hang out for their social life, libraries where they study, and playing fields where they play sports, but how many have a praying place?"

The Grotto has earned Father Hesburgh's own personal accolade: "I've been to shrines dedicated to Our Lady all over the world. Mary may visit them, but she lives here at Notre Dame."

"Although there are thirty chapels in the dorms and elsewhere on the campus," Kathy Martin says, "the popular place to pray is the Grotto."

Freshman, Kathleen Flynn said the Grotto makes her feel a part of Notre Dame: "I can stop on my way home from the 'brar'. It makes me feel complete. It's not hokey-religious, just quiet and personal."

A companion portion of that same Observer article was compiled by Doug Anderson, under the heading, "What does the Grotto mean to you?" Fr. Ron Wasowski speaks of its open outdoor setting:

It's not quite the same as the church, which is enclosed; this is outdoors. It's a place where people know prayer and devotion are welcome, where you can stop in very briefly and go on. I think it's very special because of that.

This sanctuary among the trees is filled with the memories of a host of fellow travelers journeying through life. John Bruening's comment emphasizes this impression.

On a cold winter night, it's one of the few places you can go to be by yourself, yet never feel alone.(257)

It has been said that the sweetest words in the English language are mother, heaven, and home -- Mary represents them all. The inspiration of her faith burns ever brightly in the candles at her Grotto, so that all people in need might come directly to her, like a child to its mother.

Father John E. Fitzgerald penned these words about that special feeling that radiates from the Grotto and touches the heart:

It's quiet and shady there. Just what there is about the place can't be described because it's different for everyone. Nobody knows how many candles have been burned or prayers answered there. From the great Golden Dome of her University Our Lady reigns as our Queen. Yet at the Grotto she seems to have stepped down a little closer to us that she might emphasize the other side of her personal relationship with us -- that of Our Mother.(258)

The beauty of nature surrounding the Grotto, the candleglow, the comforting listening presence to turn to, bring solace in all our troubles. Another writer described the inspiration of the newly erected Grotto as he saw it in 1899:

In order to appreciate the beauty of St. Mary's Lake and the Grotto, go when the sun is hung in the horizon's haze; then the spires of St. Mary's Academy are rounded and mellowed and the lake bosom is lit with dancing wave bands of opal and turquoise and orange, and the graceful trees near the grotto let their leaves pulsate in the quivering light.(259)

Almost 100 years after the writer above painted in words his vision of a sunset at the Grotto, Fr. Wm. Blum, C.S.C. was blessed with this memorable photograph he took of a glorious sunrise over Our Lady of the Lake and her Grotto. Visualizing the sunglow on the Grotto "when the sun is hung in the horizon's haze" and the sky is ribboned with a rainbow of colors is a very special remembrance -- once experienced never to be forgotten.

On that historic Feast Day of Our Lady of Snows, after the statue and the Grotto were blessed and Father Corby had given a brief sermon, the five hundred assembled for its dedication departed, many returning throughout the twilight hours. A remembrance of that day was recorded in an 1896 Scholastic. It seems only fitting to include it.

. . . white with the snow of moonlight, the thin mist above the mirrored planets on the lake was like the Madonna's veil. When all left only Our Lady of Lourdes stood there in the moonlight and the crickets chirped steadily in the long dewy grass.(260)

A multitude of people have paused in reflection and prayer at this peaceful shrine since that day. Others, yet unborn, will follow in their footsteps, as so many are doing today. May that river of blessed humanity continue to flow; beneath the Dome; through the Basilica; past the Grotto; along the lakes; through the ages, for endless generations to come . . . .

Heavenly Light


Christmas Eve at the Grotto
by Dennis White / Courtesy South Bend Tribune

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