Remsen, IA: St. Mary’s Church

A tiny photograph of the grotto at St. Mary’s Church in Remsen, Iowa, constructed by Chicago grotto builder Edward J. Koenig, was included in his c.1916 pamphlet. A waterfall can be seen at left in the photo, which was likely taken immediately after construction. (Missouri Historical Society Library)

St. Mary’s Church was established in Remsen, Iowa in 1881, and the parish’s first pastor arrived in 1885, Father Francis Xavier Schulte. Under his direction, a new brick building was constructed in 1904, and in 1916 he engaged Chicago landscape architect and grotto builder Edward J. Koenig to build a Lourdes grotto on the church grounds, according to Koenig’s pamphlet and several newspaper articles.

The date of the grotto construction is established by this reference to a 1916 article that had been printed in a local newspaper. The Alton Democrat, August 30, 1951 (click to enlarge)

The the photo and paragraph about the Remsen grotto in Koenig’s pamphlet establish that Koenig was the builder — as well as the reason why it was built:

Edward J. Koenig pamphlet, c.1916. (Missouri Historical Society Library)

A 1984 article about the restoration of the grotto in the Catholic Globe gives the details of the miraculous cure:

This miracle concerns Miss Helen Ahmann, a native of Remsen, who can see today because of a trip to Lourdes, France. Miss Ahmann, who now lives in Minnesota , wrote in February, 1984 a letter to St. Mary Parish explaining the events of the miracle.

Miss Ahmann was born April 24, 1913, the youngest of 12 children of Henry Ahmann and Helen Treinen Ahmann of Remsen. “After a short time, it was discovered that I was developing a severe eye condition which would cause blindness,” she wrote. “After being treated by a prominent opthamologist for one year in Sioux City, my parents decided to take me to Lourdes, France to intercede to Our Lady of Lourdes for the improvement of my sight.”

It was the spring of 1914 when Miss Ahmann, her mother and five others left for Europe. On the way a doctor in New York and another in Paris examined her and the same diagnosis was made.

“In requesting better sight for me,” Miss Ahmann wrote, “my parents promised to build a grotto on our church grounds—St. Mary in Remsen. After returning to Paris, the same opthamologist again checked my eyes and said I could see much better. It was my mother’s prayer that I would receive sufficient sight to care for myself and also enable me to make my own living. This I have done thanks to the intercession of Our Lady of Lourdes.”

The Globe, December 6, 1984. (Advantage Preservation)

The 1984 article described the restoration of the grotto, which had fallen into disrepair over the nearly 70 years since its construction. Volunteers cleaned the grotto with a power washer, re-laid loose stones, cracks were sealed and caulked using 70 bags of cement, the statues were repaired and painted, and new planting and landscaping was installed.

The waterfall seen in the early photo had been turned off at some point, likely because it was found to be damaging the structure, a common situation with grotto waterfalls. During the 1984 restoration, the waterfall was turned on again, but modern photos show water damage to the left side where it flowed, and it has once again been turned off.

A new waterfall and pond has now been installed in front of the grotto so that the beauty and miraculousness of flowing water, evoking the profound miraculousness of the original grotto at Lourdes, can again be enjoyed and contemplated by St. Mary’s parishioners.

A 2016 Globe article described a virtual pilgrimage to Lourdes presentation and prayer session given at St. Mary’s by the founder of the North America Lourdes Volunteers, in which Lourdes water was used to bless the grotto and was added to the new pond. Deacon Roder expressed that “This was a beautiful part of the night and moving for our people. It gives our grotto a God-graced connection to Lourdes.”

A modern photo of the Lourdes grotto at St. Mary’s Church in Remsen, showing the new pond and the old grotto–more than a century old. (Remsen St. Mary’s Catholic Church Facebook page)

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