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Students rediscover Saint Mary’s Grotto

Jenny Hoffman | Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Students praying and lighting candles at the Notre Dame Grotto is timeless image associated with the University. Not many people know, however, that at its’ neighboring Saint Mary’s, students used to be able to find peace and prayerful solitude on their own campus in a place called Pearley’s Glen on Sisters’ of the Holy Cross property behind the Saint Mary’s Convent.

Louise Koselek, web communications director for the Sisters of the Holy Cross said in an e-mail the Saint Mary’s Grotto had fallen into disrepair and no longer existed, Judith Johns, executive director of the Sisters of the Holy Cross told the Observer. However, it is still a place that a few students, like Saint Mary’s Senior Sarah King, visit.

King said she learned of its existence last year from author Dorothy Corson, who wrote the book “A Cave of Candles: The Story Behind the Notre Dame Grotto.” The two spoke after meeting at the Notre Dame Grotto.

“I had heard about [the Saint Mary’s Grotto], but there was nothing that made me believe it really existed,” King said.

Corson uncovered materials relating to the Saint Mary’s Grotto while conducting research for her book, including a letter from Fr. Joseph Maguire addressed to Fr. Thomas McAvoy, the former University archivist. Maguire, a priest who was ordained at the Basilica in the Sacred Heart in 1896, wrote of the history behind the Notre Dame Grotto, and whether or not Fr. Edward Sorin, the University’s founder, or former University President Fr. William Corby originally had the idea for the Grotto.

Corson wrote in her book Maguire’s letter stated “Fr. Sorin may have expressed a wish for a Grotto and he may have made one somewhere on the grounds but I never saw it or heard of it. If he did construct one he probably built it on the grounds of the Sisters.”

That part of the letter made her look a little closer at the history of the Saint Mary’s Convent and sparked the author’s curiosity regarding a possible Grotto at Saint Mary’s.

She eventually found Fr. Claude Boehm, the former Chaplain at the Convent. He told her the Saint Mary’s Grotto did exist and eventually led her to it, according to her book.

Her research also revealed that the Sisters built the Grotto in 1937 and it had fallen into disrepair by the 1950s because it became more and more overgrown and dangerous for the Sisters to visit alone because of its location.

When Corson told King at this story she knew she wanted to find it. To do so, she enlisted the help of Notre Dame senior Tim Politano. Together they went past a sign labeled “Authorized Personnel Only” and found the Grotto.

“I remember the first time I saw it. It was beautiful,” King said. “It was in the late afternoon, with the sun shining through the leaves, and even though it was overgrown, it just felt peaceful.”

She said she could envision where the statue would have been in an alcove surrounded by fallen trees.

“All the trees had somehow missed the statue; it was still protected after all these years,” King said.

After visiting the grotto, King began researching the history behind the grotto and has attempted to organize a restoration plan, but was unable to follow through with it.

“I’ve had moments of hope that it will be restored, but on the other hand, I’m realistic. I’d love to see it cleaned up,” King said. “Part of me feels like it’d be a good community builder. The sisters and students could work together. Or maybe it will remain a hidden treasure at Saint Mary’s.”