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History of The National Shrine Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes

Grotto Cave imageAbove the lovely town of Emmitsburg, Maryland, situated high on the mountainside overlooking Mount St. Mary's University main campus and the National Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, a great statue of Our Lady rises as a beacon atop the Pangborn Memorial Campanile.

This beautiful mountain shrine devoted to Our Mother Mary attracts hundreds of thousands of pilgrims each year from all over the world. It features one of the oldest American replicas of the Lourdes shrine in France, built about two decades after the apparition of Mary at Lourdes in 1858.

These holy grounds have a rich history of more than 200 years. A long, detailed story can be told; however, we will share the highlights of Our Lady's Grotto and invite you to visit to learn more about this special place.

The Search for Freedom

In 1728, a group of Catholics wishing to find religious freedom left St. Mary's City, Maryland, and headed west. The chief family of the group was the Elders, who settled in the Emmitsburg area with several others sometime after 1740. There they gave the mountain that we stand on its name, "Saint Mary's Mountain." There they built homes and founded a settlement for themselves in peace and religious freedom.

A Trinity of Stewards

More than a half century later, the area continued to provide a secure haven for Catholics.

Father John DuBois
Fr. Dubois  - stained glass imageIn 1794, Father John DuBois, a refugee from France, came here and was appointed Pastor of Frederick. He was enamored by the beauty of Western Maryland and in 1805, built a church he named "St. Mary's on the Hill". According to legend, Father DuBois was attracted to "a light on the mountain and found a blessed spot, one of the loveliest in the world and there erected a crude cross, the symbol of the holy work he was undertaking." This was the original grotto. Three years later, Father DuBois founded Mount Saint Mary's Seminary and College on the lower terraces. After 20 years of service to St. Mary's on the Hill and Mount Saint Mary's, Father DuBois was appointed Bishop of New York in 1826.

Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton
Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton - stained glass image Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, founder of the Sisters of Charity, came to Saint Mary's Mountain in 1809 and lived in Father DuBois' log cabin for six weeks, until her home in St. Joseph's Valley was completed. It is possible that Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton first called this holy shrine the "Grotto," for we find this reference in one of her letters dated May 27, 1810. She attended Sunday Mass here throughout the remaining years of her life. She died in 1821 after a life of heroic charity for others and strong faith in God, and was declared a saint in 1975.

Father Simon Gabriel Bruté
Simon Brute - stained glass imageFather Simon Gabriel Bruté, who later became the first bishop of Vincennes, Ind., was the third in a trinity of original stewards of the Grotto. Father Simon Gabriel Bruté came to St. Mary's Mountain in 1812. Father Bruté had many talents, which he used to help frame the school, community, and Grotto. He was the first Spiritual Director of the Seminary. Of all these talents, the one useful to the Grotto was his love of nature. Father Bruté believed the Lord was with us at all times. He sought to "smooth the frown from nature's erring face." The writings of Bruté indicate that an intense love and devotion were early centered about the Grotto. He and others took it upon themselves to clean up the Grotto. They began a project of removing trees and stumps and cleaning out streams. Paths were made that led from the Terrace to the Church and to the Grotto. Father Bruté attached crosses to the trees from the Church to the Grotto that now line the Stations of the Cross along the entrance. Father Bruté, Father DuBois and Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton completed the "trinity" that began and cared for this spiritual place, the Grotto.

Archbishop John Hughes

Hughes Cabin image with the Bell Tower in the background

John Hughes, born in County Tyrone, Ireland (1797), immigrated in 1817, Class of 1826 (Mount St. Mary’s College), fourth bishop of the United States of America (1838), and first archbishop of New York (1850-1864).

A gardener, Hughes was employed the 10 of November, 1819, by Father John DuBois (founder of Mount St. Mary’s College in 1808 and third bishop of New York from 1826 to 1842). “Receiving as compensation, board, lodging and private instruction,” until fall of 1820 when he moved in the two-story log house on the Terrace (built 1809), Hughes lodged in this cabin to make room for the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception. During this time he befriended Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton, who was favorably impressed by Hughes and persuaded Father DuBois to consider his admission to the college. Hughes was subsequently admitted as a regular student of Mount St. Mary's College in September 1820. In addition to his studies, he continued to supervise the garden, and served as a tutor in Latin and mathematics, as well a prefect over the other studies.

Hughes was noted as a scholar, a protagonist of the Church, a force against trusteeism and a supporter of Catholic education. During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln sent Hughes to Europe to further the Northern Cause.

Hughes founded both St. Joseph’s Seminary in Troy (forerunner of St. Joseph’s Seminary, Dunwoodie, Yonkers, New York) and St. John’s College, Fordham (subsequently Fordham University). He planned and began (1858) St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York.

To commemorate the 175th year of Mount St. Mary’s College and Seminary, John Hughes’ cabin was sited on the Grotto of Lourdes holy grounds in December 1982.

Restorer of the Grotto

Msgr. Phillips imageFor a century and a half the Grotto had been almost exclusively a shrine for students and faculty of Mount St. Mary's College and Seminary. Indeed, the only access to the Grotto for the outside world was a mountain road which, in the passing of years, had become an almost impassable gully. In 1958, this road was paved and a trickle of visitors swiftly increased until throngs of pilgrims began to find and love the ancient shrine. The progress of the Cause of Blessed Elizabeth Ann Seton had also focused attention on the place she loved so ardently. In 1959, the number of pilgrims increased to 30,000 who came to kneel in reverent awe in the place of Bishop DuBois, Mother Seton, Bishop Brute, Archbishop Hughes, and a host of prelates and priests and lay people who had grown in the love of their holy Mother at the Grotto.

The most distinguished pilgrim to the Grotto was His Excellency, the Most Reverend Apostolic Delegate (later to be known as Amleto Cardinal Cicognani) in October 1958. He encouraged Father Hugh J. Phillips, the college Librarian and Director of the Grotto, to improve the road and other features. When His Eminence arrived in Rome, he obtained and sent the rich grant of indulgences which may be gained by pilgrims to the Grotto.

After completely refurbishing the Shrine, Monsignor Phillips opened it to the public in 1958. Cardinal Shehan, Archbishop of Baltimore, proclaimed the Grotto a Public Oratory on December 8, 1965. Monsignor took care of the Grotto, a task he loved, and has made it what it is today---a beautiful place of worship. He became known as the "Restorer of the Grotto." He served the Grotto and Mount Saint Mary's in many ways, including President of the College, Director of the Grotto, and College Librarian. Monsignor Phillips passed on to his heavenly reward in 2004.

The Significance of the Grotto of Lourdes Today

WelcomeJesusHere then is an ancient Shrine of Mary where the pilgrim touches the beginnings and the spread of the Catholic Church in America; for Mount St. Mary's University history goes back to the beginnings of America. This is a true Marian Shrine where true devotion to Jesus through Mary is fostered and from which it is carried elsewhere. The preacher at the Centennial Services at this Grotto in 1908 (100 year anniversary of Mount St. Mary's) said that here the pilgrim "knows that not only in name but also in deed he or she is in blessed Mary's land. In this place, the pilgrim walks in the footsteps of the grounds and other makers of Catholicity in America."

This National Shrine, a Catholic shrine devoted to Our Blessed Mother Mary, is a place of worship, pilgrimage, evangelization and reconciliation. We will continue the mission of the Grotto as a place of prayerful and peaceful retreat and offer the occasion for a deepening conversion, a step forward in the journey to God, with Mary as the model for that journey.

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