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Grotto groundskeeper retires at 75

John-Paul Witt | Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes is a meaningful place for many people at Notre Dame, but perhaps for none more than Norbert Wiskotoni. Norbert, or “Norbie” as his friends call him, retired last month as groundskeeper for the Grotto, a position he held for the past 14 years.

“I loved working there at the Grotto. That’s why I stayed there so long. That was the best job I ever had,” Wiskotoni, 75, said.

Wiskotoni’s favorite part about the Grotto was the people, especially the couples that proposed there.

“What used to get me,” he said, “People would come down there, young people, and propose in the Grotto. That would always fascinate me; what better place to start your new life?”

People are also what Wiskotoni misses most about the Grotto.

“I have a lot of friends – a lot of friends I made at the Grotto. A lot of people who go to Church every morning, and football fans from all over. People were outstanding, and the students were great. I miss it. I miss the Grotto and I miss my friends, and the people that I worked with. I worked with some very nice people,” he said.

Wiskotoni has lived in South Bend all his life, “except for three years in the service,” he said. He served in the Army in the Korean War from 1951-53. He counts himself as a “life-long fan” of Notre Dame, due to his “strict Polish-Catholic upbringing” and South Bend heritage.

After the Korean War, Wiskotoni was 20, and began working and eventually raising a family of three daughters and a son in South Bend. He worked at South Bend Stamping making auto parts before he came to Notre Dame.

When he retired from Notre Dame due to health concerns, he also retired from two part-time jobs working as a sacristan at St. Matthew’s Parish, and driving a flower truck with Country Florist in South Bend.

Wiskotoni began working at the Grotto permanently after being hired to help out part-time on football weekends, according to his supervisor John Zack, University Sacristan. Norbert was always “personally interested in the Grotto because of his devotion to his faith,” and his absence has already been felt, Zack said.

“Norbie never missed a day of work. He had a nephew that died, and he came back to work after the funeral. When his brother and sister died, the same. He showed up no matter how cold or hot it was, Norbie showed up to work and did what he had to do. He was a great guy, a super guy. He never complained about anything, he took special pride in keeping the Grotto nice and stocked and clean. It was a matter of pride for him,” Zack said.

“Devoted” is the word most used to describe Wiskotoni by his friends and supervisors, like Fr. Peter Rocca, Rector of the Basilica.

“Norbie is one of the most conscientious workers I have ever known,” Rocca said, “Norbie was

totally devoted to Our Lady and to serving the many faith-filled people who would come to the Grotto to light a candle and pray.”

Rocca also related how it’s difficult to imagine the Grotto without Norbert, since he labored “from dawn until late at night,” especially on football weekends.

“We will forever remember Norbie for helping to make [the Grotto] such a place of comfort and peace for the many who spent time there in prayer,” Rocca said, “The Grotto is perhaps the most special place on the Notre Dame campus, and Norbie Wiskotoni helped make it so.”

One of Wiskotoni’s responsibilities was to remove old candles from the Grotto and replace them with new ones. Wiskotoni said it takes about three hours to change all the candles each morning.

Aside from the memories of the people he’s met, Wiskotoni will take with him some humorous memories as well.

“A woman’s hair caught on fire once, I was cleaning some wax at the time, and it’s a good thing I was standing there because I put the fire out so she didn’t get burned,” he said.

Wiskotoni also told a story about finding students sleeping in the grotto. Often, students will sleep overnight on the benches in the Grotto and, “normally I let them go,” he said, “But once, I came in early in the morning and there was a young couple sleeping down there inside the grotto. Sleeping against the donation box. It happened – I’m an old man, but I have a good memory.”

Although he’s been away from the Grotto for a month, Norbert plans to return as soon as possible.

“I should be coming back in the very near future,” he said, “I miss it – the people I worked with, the University, the grounds. Everyone [at Notre Dame] does an excellent job.”

As for the future, Wiskotoni said he wants to catch up on the fishing he’s missed the last few years.

“It’s a little late now, but next year, if I’m living, I’ll be out on a boat three times a week. I love to fish. That time – it’s so relaxing – you catch a fish and that’s better yet,” he said.