About the Site

This beautiful grotto and waterfall on the Dominican University campus in River Forest, IL (a suburb of Chicago), was the first Lourdes grotto I became aware of. I believe it was built by Chicago Japanese landscape artist T.R. Otsuka in 1929. Click for larger image. (Dominican University Archives)

Thanks for stopping by my website, which documents and explores the meaning of the many Lourdes grotto replicas built in the United States and Canada.

My background is as a garden historian who’s published books on the history of Iowa gardens and Midwestern Japanese gardens. My research centers on historical photos and postcard images of gardens, which I find beautiful and fascinating.

I became aware of Lourdes grottos when researching my book about T.R. Otsuka, a Midwestern Japanese gardener who lived in Chicago in the early 20th century (I believe he built a grotto, shown at right, on a Chicago-area university campus in 1929).

Despite my Catholic upbringing, I had no idea what the statues in that garden symbolized, and I wasn’t aware of the historical events surrounding Bernadette Soubirous’ 1858 visions of the Virgin Mary in Lourdes, France, until I looked them up on Wikipedia.

Wondering if Otsuka might have built any other grottos in the Chicago area, I looked on Ebay for postcards of Illinois grottos. I didn’t see any others that looked like his work, but I was amazed to discover that hundreds of postcard images of these beautiful outdoor religious spaces have been published.

I found myself deeply drawn to these evocative images and started collecting grotto postcards. They often sell for only a few dollars apiece on Ebay, and each picture tells a story about how we have encouraged religious faith and about our need for beauty. I wonder if postcards might have been partly responsible for spreading the idea of building grottos–most grottos were built between 1900 and 1960, coinciding with the popularity of postcards in the US (around 1905 through the 1950s). Also, postcard printing began as a German technology, and many US grottos seem to have been built by German Catholic immigrants. It doesn’t seem unreasonable that postcards, an inexpensive and highly popular way to communicate, might have let people know how beautiful grottos could be, and increased the desire to build them.

This grotto built in Chicago was likely named in honor of the Rev. Isadore Gey, a German-born priest at St. Peter’s Church who died in his 30s in 1896. This postcard was printed around 1906 by the Curt Teich postcard company, a Chicago company founded by a German immigrant. It was one of their earlier cards, as can be seen by the low serial number of 314. (Click for more detail.)

I began to think about the meaning of grotto spaces. All ornamental gardens symbolize ideas: we plant the flowers our mothers or grandmothers planted because we want to remember them. Formal gardens represent order, and nostalgia for perceived simpler times. Wild or prairie-style gardens symbolize a desire to return the earth to how it was before humans tried to order it.

The meaning of Lourdes grotto gardens is complex: their purpose was and is to encourage faith through their beauty and through the story they represent: the Lourdes visions, Bernadette’s unshakeable faith, and the miraculous healings at Lourdes over the past 150 years. The scene depicted by grottos allows us to imagine ourselves in Bernadette’s place: what if Mary chose to reveal herself to us? Would we be able to convince others of what we had experienced, and how would our lives change as a result?

The grottos were built at local institutions because they generated enthusiasm among their members, testified to by the hundreds of grotto postcards published by churches and other institutions. Today, Facebook posts about grottos at high schools or colleges receive numerous comments from alumni who mention their fond memories of these special places.

This grotto at Sacred Heart College in Belmont, North Carolina (pictured in their 1954 college yearbook) was no doubt remembered fondly by these graduates of the college. (archive.org)

And the human stories associated with grottos are often dramatic. Some were built after a priest or church member made a vow to Mary to build a shrine to her if she would intercede and allow them to survive a perilous situation: a life-threatening illness; a harrowing battle aboard a warship; the concentration camps at Auschwitz and Dachau. Several grottos in the US have been associated with healings, and many more have been the sites of regular pilgrimage events with thousands participating.

This c.1950 postcard shows an event at the Lourdes grotto at St. Lucy’s Church in the Bronx, New York. The printed description on the back reads: “Every day, from early morning until after midnight, thousands of people are coming and going at the Lourdes of America, seeking from our Blessed Mother spiritual and material benefits.” At least two booklets were published about this grotto, containing letters written by visitors testifying to numerous healings of serious ailments.

Grottos are indeed special places, ones worth preserving and visiting. In addition to their beauty, the stories of their history remind us that religious faith used to be a much larger part of most people’s lives than it is today, and they can show us how to be more faith-filled in the present. It is haunting to see the remnants of grottos at decommissioned churches and shuttered convents, and sometimes historic photos are all that remain of these once-revered gardens of faith.

This grotto was built at a camp on Lake Erie operated by a Catholic charity from 1940 to 1969, to provide orphans and underprivileged children with fresh air and the camp experience. The grotto no longer exists.

I’m writing a book about Lourdes grottos that I hope to publish in a couple of years. In the meantime, I’m documenting these fascinating spaces in this website.

  • First, I’m making a post (named with the city, state and institution at which a grotto was/is located) for each Lourdes grotto that I’ve found. I’m starting with the grottos published in postcards, because those photos are largely in the public domain.
  • These posts at first may contain only the image or two I have located (these are fascinating and beautiful, and I hope you enjoy looking at them as much as I do)
  • I will add information about each grotto as I’m able to research and find out more about it: when it was built, who might have constructed it, why it was built, any stories about it I can find, etc. This will take some time, as I’ve found more than 400 grottos so far.
  • If anyone knows anything about a grotto, I’d be grateful if you’d post a comment on that grotto’s page, sharing any information or personal stories you might have about it.
  • And if a grotto you know about isn’t listed (which will be common at first), please let me know about it using the Suggest a Grotto button in the right sidebar. Thanks!

I hope that other people interested in Lourdes grottos will enjoy the images and information about these special places. Again, I’d love if readers might share information with me about their local grottos, so that I can more fully record their presence and their meaning in the US and Canada. I greatly appreciate all comments and suggestions. Thanks! -Beth