Students seek peace at the Grotto
Marisa Iati | Thursday, April 24, 2014
A man in an electric wheelchair rolls up to the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes in silence, lights a candle and leaves.
An elderly woman rests on a bench, engaged in conversation with a middle-aged companion.
A couple prays side by side on the kneeler as two young kids fidget next to them.
On one of the first sunny afternoons after a long winter, Notre Dame’s shrine to the Virgin Mary has come alive.
For some students, such as freshman Laura Bobich, the Grotto is a place to reflect on their days, gain a sense of perspective and seek peace.
“Last week, I was very stressed out. I came out of my class right before and was very overwhelmed, couldn’t even think straight about all the stuff I felt like I had to do,” Bobich said. “And I stayed here for probably 10 minutes, and by the time I was leaving, I was so calm, so cool and collected. … I could go through my day more systematically, and I was no longer overwhelmed.”
Each trip to the Grotto has a slightly different purpose for senior Mara Stolee. What remains constant, she said, is the site’s ability to minimize distractions and to facilitate wholehearted prayer.
“I didn’t really know how often I was going to come [to the Grotto] when I first came [to Notre Dame],” Stolee said. “But when I was a freshman, a senior in my dorm told me that I should just go to the Grotto whenever, because the whole world makes more sense there. And I think that’s probably true.”
Solitude and solidarity
As a place for students to visit both on their own and with others, the Grotto means something different to each person, junior Anthony Barrett said.
“I’ve been here for a bunch of different reasons. I’ve been here after a friend’s dad died, I’ve been here with people who are suicidal, I’ve been here with a group of 100 band kids who are getting together to celebrate our faith,” Barrett said. “And in each one of those circumstances, it takes on a different role, but it’s always a very special place where people can go by themselves or come together as a group.”
The Grotto is a personal reflection spot for senior Vincent Burns, who said he visits almost exclusively by himself to offer up individual prayer.
“I would be very flattered if someone asked me to go to the Grotto with them because I think that’s a testament to the degree of openness with that person,” he said. “I, personally, would only invite my very closest friends to join me at the Grotto if I were going on my own initiative and not part of a group. I do think generally people treat the Grotto as … a place where personal prayer is of the utmost.”
In the solitude, though, many students find a sense of community. Saint Mary’s first-year student Casey Kochniarczyk said the candles that other people have lit create a sense of solidarity.
“You see all the prayers that other people are praying for, so you kind of know that you’re not alone and you’re not the only person facing things,” she said. “I usually pray for all the other people who’ve lit a candle or come here to pray that are facing their own problems.”
Barrett said at the end of his freshman year, he invited fellow members of the Band of the Fighting Irish to join him at the Grotto at the onset of finals week.
“I expected 10 or 12 people to come, but I think the first time there were 85 people that all came,” he said. “And we all met at midnight the night before the first day of finals and stood around in a group, prayed together, hugged each other and did finals week.
“And it was just such a powerful thing, realizing this is Notre Dame and this is the Grotto.”
A place of refuge
At night, the Grotto becomes quiet.
The candles shimmer softly, illuminating the darkness.
People perch shoulder-to-shoulder on the kneeler, lost in their hopes, their anxieties, their prayers.
Some nights, many visitors come at once. Other evenings, they trickle in slowly, converging from all corners of campus to spend time in silence.
On a warm Saturday night in April, junior Kat Stultz visited the Grotto to strengthen her sense of perspective.
“Right now, I’m wrestling with this crush that I have on somebody. It sounds silly,” she said. “But … when you walk into the area where all the candles are lit, it completely takes me out of myself and helps me to remember that there are so many people out there that have so many more struggles than I do — not in a comparative way, but just remembering to pray for them and to recognize that you don’t have to worry so much about what’s going on in your life.”
For Stultz, the Grotto is a place to escape the noise of daily realities. She said it enables her to step back and to remember what she believes is truly important.
“It’s often a place where I can go when I’m either confused about something or just need to look to Our Lady for a little bit of help,” Stultz said. “I think it can be a great place of refuge for students, whether it’s stress about a test or confusion about a relationship, or really anything that college students go through.”
One time, Stultz said, she was praying the Rosary on a bench at the Grotto when she felt a connection between her reflection and her life at Notre Dame.
“I happened to be on the Visitation, where Mary meets Elizabeth and there’s that beautiful moment between them,” she said. “As I’m praying and I look up, my friend Colleen, … one of her friends came at her from the side and just gave her a big hug. And I felt in that moment that that mystery of the Rosary just came to life at the Grotto.”
While stopping by the Grotto on the night before taking an exam, freshman James Sigman thought back to when he visited the site with upperclassmen from his residence hall during First Year Orientation. The older students were joking around as they led the freshmen on a run around campus, Sigman said, but they took on a more sincere tone when they reached the Grotto.
“It’s just so cool to see how seriously the student body takes the Grotto, and I think it’s what sets Notre Dame apart completely,” Sigman said. “It means a lot to me that they have a place like this.”