Omaha, NE: St. Joseph’s Hospital

A photo of the grotto at St. Joseph Hospital in Omaha, Nebraska, probably taken around 1920. Unusually, a door and window were set into the grotto, making it a closed structure. (History Nebraska Facebook page)

The grotto on the grounds of the formal St. Joseph’s Hospital in Omaha was local mystery to modern Omaha residents, until an enterprising reporter at the Omaha World Herald solved it and wrote an article about it for the July 23, 2016 issue of that paper. Some online digging in Omaha’s Creighton University archives yielded information about the grotto’s origins, in a 1945 booklet published for the seventy-fifth anniversary of St. Joseph’s Hospital, which was run by the Sisters of St. Francis:

The beautiful natural stone grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes, just northeast of the Nurses’ residence, also was erected during the 1908-1911 building program, probably in the summer of 1910. The structure was built entirely by hand by one Edward Koenig, as several of the older sisters and personnel recall the artisan’s name, assisted only by such hospital employees as volunteered their services. No plans or blueprints were used, they recall, the elderly Bavarian artist was his own architect and carried the plans in his mind, executing them as skillfully as if they had just come freshly off the drawing board. The statues and decorations all were imported from Munich, Bavaria, and when the work was completed, the architect-biulder proceeded on his way about the country to erect more such shrines.

“Seventy-Five Years” Creighton Memorial St. Joseph’s Hospital – Diamond Jubilee Souvenir 1870-1945
“Seventy-Five Years” Creighton Memorial St. Joseph’s Hospital – Diamond Jubilee Souvenir 1870-1945 (Creighton University Archives and Special Collections)

Edward J. Koenig likely built the Omaha grotto when he first moved to Nebraska in mid-1910. During that summer, he settled in Beatrice, Nebraska, where he placed ads for his landscaping practice. (He was certainly not “elderly” in 1910, however, only around twenty-five, nor was he likely from Bavaria, as the sisters erroneously recalled thirty-five years later.)

The hospital souvenir booklet also included a photo of the interior of the grotto, which contained a niche for the Virgin Mary statue, a kneeling Bernadette statue, a table for lighting candles, a kneeling bench and railing, and what looks like a miniature model of a church building in the back left corner (perhaps a simplified model of the Romanesque chapel building at the hospital). (“Seventy-Five Years” Creighton Memorial St. Joseph’s Hospital – Diamond Jubilee Souvenir 1870-1945 Creighton University Archives and Special Collections)
A postcard from the late 1920s of an aerial view of St. Joseph’s Hospital shows the location of the grotto, on the left (north) side of the hospital property, encircled by paths for patients and visitors to stroll. (ECU Digital Collections)
A later postcard shows the 1948 addition of the new mental unit of the hospital, Our Lady of Victory, carefully situated so as not to disturb the grotto.

In 1977, Creighton Hospital moved its operations to another Omaha location and the main building was demolished in 1985. In 1999, the mental health unit moved, and at some point an assisted-living facility was built on the corner of the property.

Unusually for a hospital grotto, the St. Joseph’s grotto has survived the many additions and expansions of a medical facility during the twentieth century and still stands, although it no longer has statues, which were removed in 1999 when the mental unit was closed. The grotto stands, forgotten and hidden away among encroaching vegetation.

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