The Story of Our Lady's Grotto

In the year 1728, a group of Catholics left St. Marys City on the St. Marys River, in Maryland, and traveled westward seeking peace and religious freedom. These Catholics were children and grandchildren of the early colonists of Maryland who had, from the beginning of their settlement, granted religious freedom its 11 only home in the wide world." They had lived to see the Puritan refugees from intolerance in Virginia come to breathe the free air of Maryland, only to make use of their freedom to destroy the liberty of those who had granted it to them. As Bancroft pointed out, the Puritans "had neither the gratitude to respect the right of the government by which they had been received and fostered, nor the magnanimity to continue the toleration to which alone they were indebted for their residence in the colony."

Chief among the refugees of 1728 were the members of the William Elder family, forebears of Archbishop Elder of Cincinnati. They traveled to the west almost one hundred miles to the first range of the Blue Ridge Mountains, giving the loved name, "St. Mary's Mount" to its eastern prominence. Finding rest in a peaceful valley of "surpassing beauty," which they called "St. Joseph's Valley," they took land and built their homes. Here they were cared for spiritually through the years by missionary priests forced to travel in disguise because of the penal laws against Catholics. The Elder farmhouse became known as "Elder's Station." Here Mass was celebrated and the dead were buried in the adjoining cemetery.

Father John Dubois and the Grotto

After the Revolution and the constitutional grant of religious freedom, Father John Dubois, a refugee priest from France, came to this area. This priest, who later became Bishop of New York, was, in the year 1794, appointed pastor of Frederick by Bishop Carroll. His pastorate included all of western Maryland and western Virginia. Of all the lovely places he visited in this wild and mountainous country, he came to love most the Mountain of Mary and the Valley of St. Joseph. On St. Mary's Mount he built, in 1805, St. Mary's Church at the site of the present Grotto parking lot. For over a century this church was a beacon calling the faithful to Mass from the Valley and a reminder to them to keep the Faith. Numerous paths, traceable to this day and all converging on the church, show with what fidelity the Catholics practiced their faith.

To this very day the people of the Valley, now members of St. Anthony's parish, exhibit a strong, living and very simple faith. Families have lived here for many generations. Very few move away. They are a happy people with a proud awareness of their ancient Catholic heritage. After all, very few parishes in these United States can say that they have had uninterrupted priestly service for 235 years. Very few can say that their forebears were taught by such holy people. They are the spiritual children of the Blessed Mother Seton. On the lower terraces, Father Dubois began the first building of Mount Saint Mary's College and Seminary in 1808.

Several hundred yards back in the mountains, behind the site of Dubois' church, is the famous Grotto, the most ancient Mary-shrine in continuous existence in the original thirteen colonies, on which was begun in 1875 the first Lourdes Grotto in America.

There is a legend that Dubois, on one of his pastoral journeys, was attracted by a light on the mountain and found this blessed spot, one of the loveliest in the world, and there erected a rude cross. Those of a more practical mind may surmise that Father Dubois was seeking the source of the stream which flowed out of the ravine into the valley below. In any event, John Dubois found the Grotto-site, a dell of breath-taking beauty. It has been said of Lourdes that, even though Our Lady had never appeared there, it would be worth a trip from the other side of the world just to see the natural beauty of the spot. The same is true of the Mountain Grotto.

Just what did John Dubois find on his day of discovery? He climbed a steep ascent through a rocky ravine along a tumbling torrent, which was much broader and more unruly than at present, for its volume has lessened since the trees were cut down on the mountain. About five hundred yards above the present college buildings, the priest came upon a lovely clearing, a masterpiece of natural beauty. Sharply sloping hills from almost every side formed a natural amphitheater where nature "displayed itself in all its wild and picturesque beauty." In the center of this clearing, where now the stone chapel stands, he saw a mound, shaded by the branches of an ancient oak. Such huge oak trees are seen even to this day on the mountain, survivors of the woodsmen's devastation.

The stream, rushing down the steep ravine, divided and flowed on both sides of this mound, especially at the time of the spring freshets. With the passing of time, the earth had been washed out from beneath the great, gnarled roots of the oak. A recess or grotto was thus formed underneath the great trunk and the thick roots which overhung the bed of the stream. In summertime when the stream was low, one could enter the grotto and find there a rustic room. Here John Dubois erected his cross, the symbol of the holy work he was undertaking. This was the original Grotto.

Some years later, in her journal for the year 1815, Mother Seton writes of this Cross, and already as the "Old Cross":

"Corpus Christi Day, so bright and glorious. The Hidden Manna so abundant. All day exposed on the altar. Crowded congregation. Mr. Hickey's best efforts. Many Communions. Quiet dinner at the Grotto before the old Cross, yet standing after winter storms. Draughts of the clear stream; then Benedicite, and back to Adoration."

Today a magnificent Calvary group dominates the Grotto dell and memorializes forever the Christian faith and rugged courage of the giant of God, John Dubois.

John Dubois then walked southeast along a level plateau to another clearing which looked out over St. Joseph's Valley. Laid out before his eyes as on a map were the farmhouses of his scattered flock. Here on the mountain he built his parish church, erecting a large statue of the Blessed Virgin in its tower.

Mother Seton and the Grotto

Blessed Elizabeth Ann Seton was the next holy person to love the Grotto. She came in the year 1809 to the Mountain where, before moving to the Valley, she and her little band of pioneer sisters lived for six weeks near the Church and the Grotto. Here her sister-in-law Harriet received the gift of Faith. And, after Mother Seton moved to the Valley, the Grotto was to her the most loved spot on the mountain. It is possible that Mother Seton first called it the Grotto, for we find this reference in one of her letters, dated May 27, 1810:

"If you could breathe our mountain air and taste the repose of the deep woods and streams. Yesterday we all, about twenty children and sisters, dined in our grotto on the mountain, where we go Sundays for the divine office."

Mother Seton's Diary gives further details of this holy association with the Grotto:

"We walked to the Mountain Church every Sunday to sing at High Mass and assist at the sermon; there was no bridge over the creek in our way; therefore, when the water was high, we had to cross one by one on horseback; and when low, we passed over on the stones; as there was no clear road to the Mountain, we often lost our way in the woods. We carried our dinner in a basket and frequently cooked our meat at the mountain taking it from the frying-pan to place it on a piece of bread without a knife or fork, and ate it standing, as the Israelites of old ate the Pascal Lamb. We would then quench our thirst at a neighboring spring and ramble for a time around the Grotto, a wild and picturesque spot some distance from the Church, furnished with seats, covered with vines, wild flowers in luxuriance around it and a gentle rivulet flowing from the rock above. We thus amused ourselves until time for Vespers and Benediction after which we returned to our home in the Valley."

The first statue of Our Lady was placed in the Grotto in Mother Seton's time. The following excerpt from the Story of the Mountain is practically a direct quotation from Father Charles White's Life of Mother Seton (1853):

"On Sunday, Father Dubois said a second Mass alternately at Emmitsburg and on the hill above the college. The sisters used to accompany this late service and sing the Mass ... After Mass the Sisters and the young ladies would assemble at the Grotto, a spot sacred to the recollections of all who have ever visited the college. It is in a romantic part of the mountain, a little above the seminary, where nature displays, itself in all its wild and picturesque beauty. Huge rocks, overgrown with moss, projected over a ravine where a crystal stream gurgled down a hill in the midst of deep foliage and wild flowers of various hues ... such were the attractions that made it a favorite resort. Here too the hand of piety had planted the symbol of redemption and erected the image of her who is justly styled Help of Christians. Here too would Mother Seton, before taking on a rock known as hers a simple repast with her little band, invoke the divine blessing by reciting the Canticle of the Three Children. And none that ever heard her could ever for- get the tone of that voice and the fervor of that heart which, in the midst of the wild scenery of nature, called upon all creatures to bless and magnify their Creator."

Seated on the rock "known as hers," Mother Seton would also teach catechism to her sons and to the children of the parish.

Truly Mother Seton loved this Grotto. It entered into her daily thoughts, conversations and writings. In a letter to Father Brute', she prayed for "one only heart, clear for my thoughts as the stream of your Grotto."

Father Brute and the Grotto

To complete the trinity of loving and holy founders of the Grotto, Father Simon Gabriel Brute' came to the Mountain in 1812. This remarkable priest, later first Bishop of Vincennes, Indiana, combined in his person the talents and attainments of a scholar, theologian, master of the spiritual life, teacher, and pastor of souls. But most important to our study, he was a great lover of nature. This was part and parcel of his spiritual life, immersed as he was in the beautiful French spirituality of the Fathers of St. Suipice, centered about the incarnate God. Father Brute' could write most truly, as he did in one of his meditations, "Not a moment of my life, not a duty but I see my Savior walk before me." He could become exalted over the thought that we are "breathing the same air that Jesus did also breathe, cheered by the light that shone in His blessed eyes, the sight of the same verdant lawns, the fruitful fields of His creation here below, such as He himself viewed and blessed it, present among us." To Brut', then, let "every river be the Jordan of His baptism, every lake the waters of Tiberiade and Genesareth, every mountain His solitude, every vale the place of His prayer for us; every field, every road may show Him to us. The night itself is full of His presence since all these visible heaven once encompassed their Lord as they do now His poor servants called His members, made one Body with Him, now even, but oh, for an eternity."

This spiritual enthusiast, reveled in the beauty of the Mountain of Mary and the Valley of St. Joseph. Brute' brought to the Mountain and the Valley a program of holy activity best described in the words of Archbishop Robert Seton quoting the recollections of his father, William Seton, a student at the Mountain from 1809 to 1815. This William Seton, the son of Mother Seton, was at his own request buried in the Mountain cemetery near the Grotto on January 28, 1868.

"Work was pleasantly combined with study-work in cutting down some trees, setting out others, rooting out stumps, clearing off stones, and fixing up things generally about the place .... The general impression left on my mind by the little conversation which at different times I had with my father was that the whole place was filled with an atmosphere of reasonable, practical and joyous piety that a halo of religious simplicity, learning and every kind of holiness shone round the superiors and teachers of the institution. He seems never since to have found in any part of the world so much unaffected piety and enlightened religion."

Remembering the orderly, cultivated hills of his native France, Brute' strove to 94 smooth the frown from nature's erring face." Springs were cleaned out, covered and named for saints; terraces and paths found their way up the rugged Mountainside to the. church and Grotto. They were constructed so well that we walk along them today and the stone walls remain. He attached crosses to the trees on the path between the church and the Grotto so that one might make the Stations along this beautiful woodland avenue. But Brute"s very special love was the Grotto of Our Lady and the ravine above and below it. George Henry Miles, the poet of the Mountain, thus describes his first day at the Mountain College in 1835:

"The first day was, by prescription, dedicated to a ramble over the mountain. There were numerous flower gardens, very small and very pretty, scattered at intervals along a shady ravine, through which a clear, cold stream, abounding in crawfish went merrily trickling. And what surprised me most was to find in almost every nook, three small wooden crosses planted in beds of green moss bordered by round white pebbles. All along the slopes of the hill were neat and durable paths, some broad, some narrow, and many of them terminating in a timeworn Grotto. I was told that they were made by Mr. Brute'. I did not know then that I was treading on hallowed ground, and for some time regarded Mr. Brute' as a good, old, industrious day-laborer, who had been well paid for his work. I had yet to learn that his wages were not of this world."

The writings of Brute indicate that an intense love and devotion were early centered about the Grotto. In the month of July, 1825, a young candidate for the sisterhood was stricken suddenly ill. At first the illness was not regarded seriously but soon many sisters walked the two miles to the Mountain for a priest. "They had been to the Grotto," Brute wrote significantly. Thus in less than twenty years the Grotto had become a place of refuge and devout petition.

An Historic Retreat at the Grotto in 1827

In August of the year 1827, Father John McElroy, a Jesuit priest from Frederick, Maryland, gave a retreat to the seminarians at the Grotto. Following are some quotations from a  letter written by Father McElroy to the Sisters at St. Joseph's on August 15, the fifth day of the retreat:

"The place is one of the finest I have ever seen for a Spiritual Retreat, and constantly reminds one of Manresa where our holy father, St. Ignatius, first wrote these Exercises. I mean the Grotto, not far from the church, where I am now writing. Here are we to be seen, twenty- nine in number,-of these three are priests, two deacons and a subdeacon,sometimes kneeling on the ground in two ranks during meditation and examine; at other times seated on two ranges of seats, listening to the instructions of 'Father Mae' who stands at one end of the Grotto shaded from the rays of the sun by a luxuriant vine. Again we recite the Divine Office walking along---those delightful walks, the work of the pious and saintly Rev. Mr. Brute'; again, we are seen scattered over the rocks with our paper and pencil, or under the shady oak, noting down our good resolutions. Our Divine Master is not forgotten. we visit him at the holy altar five times a day. Truly Mount Saint Mary's is blessed with so many virtuous and promising young men."

"Promising" indeed were these young men, for numbered among the retreatants, in addition to Brute' and Purcell (afterwards Archbishop of Cincinnati) were -

  • John McCloskey, destined to be the first American Cardinal and Archbishop of New York
  • Richard Whelan, to be first Bishop of Richmond and Wheeling
  • William Quarter, to be first Bishop of Chicago George Carrell, to be first Bishop of Covington, Kentucky
  • Francis X. Gartland, to be first Bishop of Savannah
  • John McCaffrey, Francis Jamison and Thomas Butler, to be Presidents of Mount Saint Mary's
  • Edward Sourin, the poet-priest, to be a distinguished priest of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia
  • Truly, America has never seen such a retreat as this one at the Grotto in 1827. The year before, John Dubois had left to take up his duties as Bishop of New York. With him left a young seminarian to be ordained to the priesthood. This was John Hughes, later to be the great Archbishop of New York.

    The Seminarians and the Grotto

    Brute' built a lovely bower as an entrance to the Grotto and this was enlarged and kept in repair through the years. Certainly in his day and by his example began the tradition of industrious devotion to Our Lady at the Grotto which was so well expressed by Dr. McSweeney in the Great Rule of the Seminary, written in 1898:

    "Of Devotion to Our Blessed Mother and the Grotto- The Shrine on the mountain is dear to every heart that has beaten within the sound of the splashing stream tumbling past this holy spot. Father Brute', the Angel of the Mount, and Mistress Seton, the heroic foundress of the Sisters of Charity, sanctified the place by their visits and cherished it with loving care. The seminarians should care for its rustic beauty and cultivate, as a most precious flower, filial devotion to dearest Mother Mary."

    The Seminary Sodalitv, first formed September 8, 1819, and reorganized in 1868, Tested in its Rule as one of its duties "Keeping the Grotto in order." Through the years this loving care of the Grotto continued, each generation of Mountaineers adding its contribution of love and receiving its legacy of devotion.

    The Grotto its 1858

    The editor of the Catholic Mirror of Baltimore, in the issue of October 16, 1858, wrote a lengthy story of the Golden Jubilee Celebration of the College and Seminary. In this story he gives clear testimony of the part played by the Grotto during those days in the devotional life of the students.

    "The interesting place called the Grotto is situated less than a half mile from the college on the mountain side, and in a deep ravine. It is surrounded by lofty trees and a thick underbrush of wild bushes. By it flows a small stream of crystal water, gathered from the numerous springs that gush from the mountain side. The Grotto is constructed mainly of lattice-work, and has a substantial roof over it. The native grape-vine, which- in early times formed the covering, is no longer relied on for that service, but it still adds to the rustic beauty of the place. Around it are small walks and paling fences, which, in their white-washed condition, give an air of neatness to the locality. Within is a shrine dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, containing a large image of her, appropriately painted and ornamented. To this quiet retreat, the college students and their teachers, like the sainted Brute' of old, sometimes retire during recreation, to pray and pay votive homage to Mary, their sweet Mother. They take pleasure in honoring her, and on special occasions increase their evidences of devotion.

    Such a one is presented by this college jubilee, and they took care at night to illuminate the whole place with chandeliers and burning candles. Around the image of the Blessed Virgin in particular was the illumination brilliant. We went to enjoy this sight and were exceedingly edified. As we approached, the burning lamps seen through the tree branches made a deep impression. Many of the youthful clients of Mary were there, singing her hymns and litany with deep fervor. There, while no human voice could reach them, nor human eye could see them, in the midst of the darkness of the night, their sweet melody rose on the evening air.

    The music of the brook was their only accompaniment save murmuring where the hillsides gave back a gentle echo. From our heart we blessed the spirit that animates those who throw an interest around this charming spot."

    Corpus Christi at the Grotto

    A memorable devotion centered about the old Grotto was the annual Corpus Christi procession. It was during Arch- bishop Purcell's term as president of the college (1829-1833) that these annual processions at the Grotto over Brute"s paths began, or at least began to be chronicled, and another charm was added to the Mountain. The "Story of the Mountain" contains a number of articles by Mountaineers who try to put into words the unspeakable joy of their memory of these holy occasions. Reading them, we are reminded of the comment of the poet Miles:

     "Who can wonder that we turn with overflowing hearts to Mount Saint Mary's and speak of her with a tenderness that makes a worldling smile."

     The lovely road between the site of the old church and the Grotto is still called the "Aisle of the Corpus Christi Procession."

    The old tree over the original Grotto finally rotted away in some unrecorded year. But immediately Brute"s entrance bower was enlarged to protect the holy spot and the Statue of Our Lady, Help of Christians. In 1861, Father Leonard Obermeyer, professor of science at the college, aided by two seminarians, James Dunn and Martin Fallon, constructed the stone dam above the present Lourdes shrine. From this reservoir they ran a water line of hollowed-out saplings to a fountain which sent up a jet of water at least a dozen feet in height from the center of a basin in front of the old Grotto. This is the "fountain" mentioned in the poem, "The Grotto," written by Harry S. Barbour of the class of 1878.

    Bishop Northrop, of Charleston, South Carolina, who graduated from the college in 1864, tells how his father, a Mountaineer, had great devotion to the Grotto. He composed and printed an Office of Our Lady of the Grotto which the Bishop and other students for the priesthood recited every Saturday, at the Grotto.

    There is even a holy legend of a sinner moved to repentance by prayer before the old Spanish crucifix in the Church on the Hill and at the Grotto. While written in the florid style of the period, probably by the poet Miles, it tells the story of an actual miracle of grace at the holy church and grotto.

    We are reminded then, and it should never be forgotten, that the Grotto was an authentic shrine of Our Lady long before the construction of the Lourdes Shrine, which is the present center of devotion.