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Notre Dame caretakers facilitate use of the Grotto

| Monday, September 26, 2016

Most students at Notre Dame have been to the Grotto before, but few know the work that goes in behind the scenes to keep the Grotto special.

Notre Dame community members light candles and pray at the Grotto during a prayer vigil for  undocumented students in April. Richard Albright and Tim Malott work daily to maintain the Grotto.Wei Cao | The Observer

Notre Dame community members light candles and pray at the Grotto during a prayer vigil for
undocumented students in April. Richard Albright and Tim Malott work daily to maintain the Grotto.

Two workers, Richard Albright and Tim Malott, take care of the Grotto three to five days a week each for a couple hours every day. Combined, they are at the grotto almost every day except major holidays.

During the several hours they serve at the Grotto, the workers take out the burnt candles, refill bins with new candles, sift the charcoal out of the taper holders, take care of the altar area, sweep and keep track of any maintenance that needs to be done.

“One special thing is that … they love their job,” said Mary Froning, head of sacristy supply at the Basilica who oversees the Grotto caretakers, said.

“They love coming here. I think what it is is that they come here and it is quiet and they just do their thing and go,” she said. 

Football weekends are especially busy for the caretakers who are at the Grotto for sometimes eight to 10 hours on Saturdays to keep the Grotto clean for visitors.

“We’ve been working on it the past couple years to make sure we stay out of the way but are there to assist if we need to,” Froning said.

Football weekends are so busy that the staff has added five drawers that slide underneath the candle racks outside to add extra spaces for visitors to light candles. Smaller candles are also used in some of the racks.

Despite the hassle of the football weekends, Froning said she enjoys the time.

“Being here on a Saturday morning for football games and seeing the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people who come through here quietly and enjoying it, it’s great,” she said. “You can’t describe it except it’s a calm, happy feeling.”

The candles are delivered every week from Root Candle Company in Medina, Ohio. Besides football weekends, the busiest times for the Grotto are exam weeks, according to the staff.

Froning, who has overseen the care of the Grotto for three years, said she can personally attest to the calming atmosphere of the Grotto. One summer, in between Grotto caretakers, she and the other Basilica workers had to care for the grotto every day. One member of the Basilica staff at that time was sick and died, and the staff said caring for the Grotto helped the other staff members mourn.

“Something — it’s gotta be the Blessed Mother — just makes it a very nice place to work and also a comforting place,” Froning said.

Froning said she never guessed she would end up in such a role.

“I can remember several years ago riding my bike through the University, before I worked here, and thought, ‘I wonder what it would be like to work here. It would be kind of nice,’” she said. “And then to end up here, it’s amazing. To watch the Grotto caretakers and how relaxed and happy they seem to be … it’s a relief.”

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