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Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto has long history, group hopes to restore 80-year-old shrine

More than 80 years ago, the Sisters of The Humility of Mary wanted to create an outdoor shrine to the Blessed Virgin Mary.But the nuns at Mount Marie Academy would not dare ask for any money to construct their grotto, instead they relied on prayer.

"They prayed and prayed and prayed and put it out there," Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto committee member Stephanie Cooper said. "People started to donate and send things (for the grotto)."

As the grotto committee prepares to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the shrine, they are once again turning to prayer – and the generosity of others. The grotto is in need of extensive restoration work and committee members are raising funds to make the repairs.

The Sisters of The Humility of Mary had an idea to create an outdoor shrine to the Blessed Virgin Mary more than 80 years ago. With lots of prayer and generous donations, the nuns created a shrine on the campus of Mount Marie Academy, now Central Catholic High School.

A history of miracles
The grotto, tucked away on the grounds behind Central Catholic High School, is a replica of the site the Virgin Mary appeared to a young pheasant girl, Bernadette Soubirous, while she gathered firewood near Lourdes, France, on Feb. 11, 1858. She appeared to the girl 18 more times that year.  

Cooper, who retired two years ago after teaching theology at Central Catholic for 18 years, said the nuns wanted a place to honor Mary and they found the perfect spot while peering out of the front doors of the school. At the time, the front faced St. Joan of Arc Church and they spotted a natural hill in the landscape.

Now, they just needed the funds to construct the shrine.

As they prayed upon the project, donations began pouring in. They got stones from every state, as well as from overseas, to construct the stone structure.

Linda Miller, chair of the Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto committee, is leading a fundraising effort to repair the shrine, which has suffered water damage through the years.

Construction of the shrine begin May 18, 1940.
It contains stones from the Holy Land, Ireland, Italy, the Italian Alps and the Cathedral of Moscow. The most precious of the stones comes from the Garden of Gethsemane in Nazareth, where Jesus underwent the agony in the garden and was later arrested before his crucifixion; from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus was crucified and his empty tomb remains; and from Massabielle, where Mary appeared to Bernadette.

While parts of the nuns' story is a mystery, Cooper said they appealed to officials to send holy water from Lourdes.

A caretaker obliged and tied a chip of the stone that Mary stood on when she appeared to Bernadette to a can of holy water and shipped it to the United States. Nearly eight months later the parcel arrived in New York, and despite the rusted can, it was forwarded to the nuns. The rock was placed at the entrance of the shrine.

"You just have to touch it," Linda Miller, chair of the grotto committee, said as she lightly caressed the stone. "You just get a peaceful feeling."

Cooper said it was just one of the miraculous acts the nuns experienced.

While raising money, the nuns commissioned a company in Italy to create a statue of Mary out of Carrara marble. They received word the statue was completed early and on its way. Unfortunately, they had not raised enough money to take possession of the statue, which remained in New York for nearly a year.

If the statue had not been completed and shipped early, it likely never would have made it to its home in Perry Township, Cooper said, adding World War II had ramped up and many ships were damaged or destroyed while traversing the ocean.

"There is a miracle behind it," she said.

The first Mass was celebrated at the grotto on Sept. 1, 1941.

Over the years, the place of worship became neglected. When Cooper attended Central in the 1970s, the grotto was overgrown with weeds and was a place students usually escaped to for mischief.

That's when Mary Jo Gowins' parents, Cal and Jo-Ann Streb, stepped in. The Strebs got involved with the cleanup, maintenance and restoration of the grotto when their oldest son, John, was a freshman at Central in 1971. The pair formed the grotto committee and took over upkeep of the shrine.

"I was eight the first time I came out with a rake in my hand," Gowins recalled. She spent many years caring for the grounds with her family and it holds a special, sacred spot in her heart.

Her father and mother are responsible for what the grotto is today. She recalls her dad building and then repairing the boxes around the Stations of the Cross.

Getting on in age, the Strebs stepped down from their role a few years ago leaving the grotto's care in the hands of Miller and her committee. Jo-Ann died in 2016.

"He didn't want to stop taking care of this place," Gowins said of her father.

Throughout the year, the grotto is used for First Friday Masses at 7 p.m. June through September, and a May crowning and the Feast of the Assumption is celebrated. On Sunday, the grotto hosted a rosary rally as part of the Rosary Coast to Coast. Faithful across the United States said the rosary together to harness the power of prayer against evils faced in the world today.

This year, many of the services and events have been canceled due to COVID, but that didn't keep Gowins and her father from visiting the shrine to celebrate Mary. Never missing a May crowning, Gowins, her father and her sister played a recording of "Ave Maria" and said the rosary like they had for some many years.

Upkeep of the shrine

Throughout the years, the committee has handled day-to-day maintenance of the site.

The committee provides a scholarship to a Central student to tend to the mowing and weeding.

Miller and her committee have spent many hours working on the grotto.

One summer, she painted the Stations of the Cross. This past summer, volunteers constructed a walk around rosary. Central art students and their teacher Joanne Zahler painted the rocks that are in the rosary.  

Linda Miller, from left, Stephanie Cooper, and Mary Jo Gowins, members of the Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto committee, talk about the Peace Rosary at the grotto on the grounds of Central Catholic High School. The rosary was added this summer.
Battered by the weather and time, the grotto is in need of repair work.

Water has seeped into the cement that holds the rocks together and freezing and thawing throughout the years has loosened the cement.

Coon Restoration has examined the shrine and determined the integrity of the arched dome over the altar has been compromised. Without repairs, it could collapse.

Miller also would like to restore the water fountain that was part of the original design and reconfigure the altar.

It's unclear how much it will cost to restore the spot. Layers of soil from above the grotto will have to removed and the stones reset. After that, a layer of concrete casing will be installed before the grass and soil is replanted on top. The casing will hopefully stop water from seeping into the structure.

To raise funds for the project, the committee will host its annual fundraiser from 4 to 6 p.m. Nov. 21. Due to COVID-19, the event will be a drive-thru dinner at LaPizzaria in Jackson Township, not the group's typical style-show and lunch. Guests will pre-order their meal and pick it up during the event. Several raffles will be held, including one for a one-carat diamond solitaire necklace set in 14K white gold and diamond studs. The set is appraised at $6,800 and was donated by Anne Marie Beris George of Anne-Marie's Fine Jewelry and Shelley Habermann.

They will also raffle several baskets including a basket of wine and gift cards. All of the money raised goes toward the scholarship student and the repairs.

"This whole thing began by prayer and donation and we are returning to that to keep the grotto for years to come," Cooper added.

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