Faithful find solace at centuries-old grotto

Sanctuary on grounds of Mount St. Mary's provides comfort to some

A World In Mourning

The Death Of Pope John Paul Ii

April 05, 2005|By Gina Davis | Gina Davis,SUN STAFF

EMMITSBURG -- As she knelt on the cold concrete of the outdoor sanctuary, Donna Hogan gazed at the statue of the Virgin Mary. The swoosh of the grotto's stream, said to run deep with healing waters, was the only sound as she bowed her head in prayer and quiet contemplation.

With a flawless blue sky overhead and a crisp spring breeze at her back, Hogan, 67, of Fairfield, seemed to melt into the tranquillity emanating from the grotto, a cave-like structure the size of a walk-in closet, made of stone more than 200 years ago on the side of a mountain. The grotto, on the grounds of Mount St. Mary's University, serves as an anchor for the spiritual community in this Frederick County town 12 miles south of Gettysburg, Pa.

Hogan came to pray for Pope John Paul II and the Roman Catholic Church's future -- and to find peace and solitude.

"Coming here is always an act of love," said Hogan, who comes to the shrine nearly every day. "When I'm here, I feel the peace and grace."

The National Shrine Grotto of Lourdes in Emmitsburg is the oldest replica in the Western Hemisphere of the more famous one of the same name in France. Built in 1875, the grotto and its imposing 120-foot tower bear witness to the 18 appearances, the first of which was Feb. 11, 1858, that the Blessed Virgin Mary is said to have made to a 14-year-old girl named Bernadette Soubiroux in France.

The grotto marks the site of St. Mary's Church, "the Old Church on the Hill," built in 1805 by Father John DuBois, who later became the third bishop of New York. He founded what is now Mount St. Mary's University and seminary, the second-oldest Catholic college in the United States.

DuBois created the grotto 200 years ago when he built the church. But it lacked a name until 1875 when the replica was completed.

About 125,000 people cross the grotto's threshold each year and enter into a natural sanctuary hard to find even in a rural setting such as Emmitsburg.

This is where Hogan was Saturday, when the grotto's serenity was broken just before 3 p.m. with the clanging of the bell tower delivering news of the pope's death.

"It was a terribly sad moment," she recalled as she carefully placed in the back of her car a pitcher filled with water from the stream. "Just as we were wrapping up our prayers [for those who are dying], we heard the bells."

Towering trees and marble benches line the path that leads pilgrims past a series of monuments depicting the Stations of the Cross to the grotto, where prayer candles are lit and the stream's soothing sound invites visitors to linger in prayer or deep thought. Yesterday, black fabric draped across the two columns at the grotto's entrance marked a community in mourning over the pope's death.

The smells of freshly mulched flower beds draw visitors deeper into the sanctuary, first to the Corpus Christi Chapel, a diminutive structure that beckons pilgrims to its tiny altar, and then to the grotto.

"We've seen more people than usual" in the days surrounding the pope's death, said the grotto's chaplain, the Rev. John J. Lombardi. What strikes him most is not their numbers, but their mood.

"Their tenor is, on one hand, sad. Yet, it's also thankful," he said. "They're recalling his beauty and holiness, and his heroic faith. ... This is bringing out in people a love of God and God's friend, Pope John Paul II."

Most of the pilgrims who knelt at the grotto yesterday spoke of a sense of calm and peace, content in their belief that Pope John Paul is now in heaven.

Hogan and others said they don't know quite what to expect next -- those are matters to entrust to a higher power -- but they are hopeful the next pontiff will share Pope John Paul's philosophy and sense of humanity.

"I think the Holy Father has set the stage for anyone to follow him," Hogan said. "We believe the Holy Spirit will guide people to vote for the right person."

In the meantime, pilgrims like Letebrhan Imam, 48, of Silver Spring -- who came to the United States nearly 30 years ago when she left her homeland of Eritrea to escape the war-torn East African country -- said she will continue to seek solace at this slice of heaven on earth, the grotto.

"I come here to feel the presence" of God, she said.

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