The significance and origins of Notre Dame’s devotion to the Immaculate Conception

For 126 years, Notre Dame’s Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes has been a prominent place of prayer for students, countless football fans, campus visitors, and pilgrims.

The Grotto is a one-seventh-scale replica of the grotto in Lourdes, France where the Virgin Mary appeared eighteen times to peasant girl Bernadette Soubirous, culminating in Mary’s declaration “I am the Immaculate Conception” between February 11 and July 16, 1896. Visitors to Notre Dame’s Grotto light hundreds of thousands of candles every year, asking for the intercession of Our Lady.

Though modeled after a European pilgrimage site, the Grotto on campus has taken on a devotional life of its own. When asked about the significance of the Grotto for the student body, sophomore Brian Buttner explained, “the Grotto is the true heart of this campus. It is the heart of our Mother that holds us close, always interceding for us; keeping vigil even as we go back to our full schedules. For students, the Grotto has been, and will continue to be a focal point of peace and spiritual renewal.”

Loyal 6:45 pm Rosary attendee Br. Patrick Lynch, C.S.C. told the Rover, “for various reasons, many people cannot travel to Lourdes. To have this sacred place here on the campus of Notre Dame is a wonderful blessing. As a Holy Cross brother, the Grotto has a very significant spiritual meaning for me. I have never been to Lourdes, but I believe that our Blessed Mother is present here in a special way at this sacred place. Fr. Sorin would be very pleased to see how many individuals come here to pray and to honor Mary our mother.” Br. Lynch concluded: “It’s difficult to imagine the Notre Dame campus without the Grotto of our Lady of Lourdes.”

Fr. Brian Ching, C.S.C., Rector of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, echoed Br. Lynch’s sentiment: “The Grotto is a reminder of our love and devotion to the Blessed Mother and of our French roots. Blessed Basil Moreau designated Our Lady of Sorrows as our special patroness, so devotion to the Blessed Mother is a strong part of our spiritual heritage. The Grotto gives that devotion a historical rootedness, and is a concrete sign of the devotion of Fr. Sorin and those first Holy Cross religious who came to the United States.”

In 1896 Fr. William Corby built the Grotto as we know it today, but the original impetus for the site was Fr. Sorin’s devotion to the Immaculate Conception. When asked about the origins of Notre Dame’s devotion to this title of Our Lady, John Nagy, managing editor of Notre Dame Magazine said “Pope Pius IX had promulgated the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception in 1854, giving official Church sanction to this devotion. Four years later we have the apparition of the Virgin Mary in Lourdes, France. He [Fr. Sorin] created this very American university but was still a French patriot, he loved French culture and French Catholicism. Very early on he made a commitment to bring the devotion to the Immaculate Conception to Notre Dame. The golden statue on the dome is the Immaculate Conception specifically.” 

While the devotional life of the University was strongly shaped by Fr. Sorin, many believe the Grotto to be the result of a prayer Fr. Corby offered to keep the Holy Cross Sisters at Notre Dame following squabbling with Rome over their status on campus. Nagy added: “I think there’s a misimpression that Sorin built the Grotto, but Corby is really the one who is responsible for it. The Grotto as we know it today appears to be the fruit of a prayer that Fr. Corby made at Lourdes. It was in April 1895 after his prayer petition at Lourdes, he heard from Rome that the sisters could continue to live and work at the university. This would appear to be the prayer answered. A year later almost to the day, Fr. Thomas Carroll comes forward with the money, about $2,000, to cover the full construction of a new campus grotto. By May they were clearing the site, it was finished and dedicated on the Feast of Our Lady of Snows August 5th 1896.” This date was the same day Sorin departed from France for the New World in 1841—55 years later to the day.

Among the fieldstone boulders sourced from local farms, a small stone on the right hand side of the Grotto was taken from the original site in Lourdes, France. A daily Rosary devotion is offered at 6:45 pm and 11:00 pm. 

Daniel Martin is a sophomore from Skippack, Pennsylvania in the Program of Liberal Studies. For questions related to the Grotto email, though as a son of the Philadelphia area, more likely than not he will be correcting erroneous pronunciations of the word “water” and not checking his email.

Photo Credit: Oldest picture of the Grotto, 1896.  A Cave of Candles, Dorothy V. Corson