Brother Fridolin Iten, Grotto Builder

Brother Fridolin late in life, in 1937 at age 69. This photo may have been taken next to a grotto project of his at St. Michael’s Mission House near Conesus, New York. (Rochester Democrat and Chronical, September 5, 1937)

Brother Fridolin Iten (c.1868-1939) of the Society of the Divine Word was a gifted sculptor, grotto builder and artist, who built around a dozen different grottos of various types in the US, including at least five Lourdes grottos.

Brother Fridolin’s surname has been mistakenly spelled in newspaper articles as “Ifen” with an “F”, but it was actually “Iten” with a “T”, as shown in census and immigration records.

According to a 1937 article shown below, Brother Fridolin (surname not identified) was born in Zug, Switzerland around 1868. In 1895 at age 27, he joined the Society of the Divine Word, a missionary order founded in 1875 in Steyl, Netherlands by a German priest who fled his homeland during the religious conflicts of that period.

In 1909, Iten came to the United States, to join the St. Joseph’s Technical School that the mission had established to teach skilled trades to local orphanage children in 1900, on a farm in an area that became named Techny, Illinois (from “Technical”), on the north edge of Chicago and now part of Northbrook.

This arrival date is confirmed by a ship’s list (see image) showing Iten’s arrival in New York on October 9, 1909, aboard the S.S. Ryndam from Rotterdam, Netherlands. He indicated that his last residence had been in Steyl, Holland and that his destination was Techny, Illinois.

Iten did not appear in the 1910 Census, but the 1920 Census showed Fridolin A. Iten residing at Techny, at the St. Mary’s Mission House (the Society closed the technical school by around 1913 and concentrated on mission and seminary work. A large seminary with more than 800 students training to be foreign missionary priests operated there.)

The 1937 article asserted that “his talents were soon discovered by his brothers…. he is the organization’s official artist, sculptor and designer.” Brother Fridolin’s occupation in the 1920 Census was listed as Artist.

A full-page article about Brother Fridolin was published in the Rochester Democrat and Chronical, September 5, 1937. (click to enlarge)
The ship’s list showing Fridolin Iten’s arrival in 1909. (click to enlarge) (

The Society of the Divine Word Robert M. Myers Archives and Resource Center in Techny holds a five-page biography of Brother Fridolin Iten that gives information about many of his projects, although it’s not known who compiled it or when it was written (I’m grateful to the archivists who shared it with me!).

Grottos at Techny

The earliest projects built by Brother Fridolin were likely those at St. Mary’s Mission House at Techny, where he resided during the 1910s and 1920s. These included a Grotto of the Agony (1921), numerous statues, a large crucifix (1918), a shrine of the Blessed Mother (1918), “an ancient Aztec dwelling” (1920), and a Grotto of the Sorrowful Mother.

Later, around 1937, he built the Lourdes grotto at Techny Park. It was dedicated in May 1938. Many of the Techny grottos are still standing today.

A c.1940 postcard image of the Lourdes Grotto at St. Mary’s Mission House at Techny.
A postcard of the interior of the Grotto of the Agony.
The exterior of the Grotto of the Agony (likely) at St. Mary’s Mission House at Techny.
The Grotto of the Sorrowful Mother at Techny.

Grottos at Schererville, Indiana

Brother Fridolin built a Mount Calvary and Stations of the Cross at St. Michael Parish in Schererville, Indiana, according to a 1927 article. And the parish website lists a Grotto of Gethsemane and a Resurrection Grotto on either side of Mount Calvary as well, which were likely built in the following years of 1928 or 1929. (The website also credits Iten with building the Lourdes grotto at St. Michael, but that was built earlier than the other grottos, in 1906 by Edward J. Koenig, before Iten’s 1909 arrival in the US.) Brother Fridolen’s work in Schererville still stands and has been restored.

Mount Calvary at St. Michael Parish in Schererville, the work of Brother Fridolin and volunteer builders from the church in the 1920s. (St. Michael Parish Facebook page)

Grottos at Sacred Heart Mission House, Girard, Pennsylvania

Brother Fridolin built a number of projects on the grounds of the Sacred Heart Mission House in Gerard, Pennsylvania, according to his biography. These included building a large concrete pond with an island in the center (1920), a statue of the Society of the Divine Word founder Arnold janssen on the island (1927), and a grotto of Rip van Winkle (1933).

Although the biography does not mention it, he also likely built a Lourdes grotto, perhaps around 1930, as one can be seen there:

A c.1930s postcard image of the mission house at Girard shows the lake that Brother Fridolin built. A Lourdes grotto can just be made out at left at this distance.
This photo, probably taken in the 1950s, shows that a white lattice fence has been installed around the Lourdes grotto, framing the space in front of the grotto. (Society of the Divine Word Archives)

Grottos at St. Paul’s Seminary, Epworth, Iowa

Brother Fridolin built a Lourdes grotto (1934) and an Agony in the Garden grotto (1935), neither of which survives, on the grounds of St. Paul’s Seminary (now Divine Word College) in Epworth, Iowa.

According to the biography of Brother Fridolin, the Lourdes grotto was:

,,,located on the summit of a little hill near the Sisters convent. The 40 foot wall for the new grotto was built in reproduction of the world famous grotto of Lourdes in France…. Artificial lighting installed at the grotto gave illumination on the subjects. The grotto engineer, Brother Fridolin, completed the grotto before winter and completed the landscaping the following spring. Plum trees in the background produced a fragrant garland when in full bloom surrounding the niche containing the statue of Mary Immaculate.

The Lourdes grotto at what is now Divine Word College in Epworth, Iowa. Fragrant plum trees surrounded the grotto in a beautiful flowering grove. This grotto is almost certainly gone. (Society of the Divine Word Archives)

Grottos at Miramar Retreat, Duxbury, Massachusetts

In the early 1930s, Brother Fridolin worked at a new retreat house established near Island Creek, Massachusetts, named Miramar. He built a Grotto of Gethsemane (1933) and a Lourdes Grotto (1935), according to newspaper articles, as well as a large ornamental pond edged with rocks and a stone lighthouse on an island in the center of the pond.

A postcard photo of the Lourdes Grotto at Miramar Retreat, built in 1935 by Brother Fridolin.
A large rock-edged pond, with an island in the center on which an ornamental lighthouse stood, all built by Brother Fridolin and other men at the facility. The Lourdes grotto he built can be seen behind the lighthouse across the pond. (click to enlarge)
This newspaper photo shows Brother Fridolin, right, finishing his Grotto of the Agony at Miramar. (Boston Globe, August 4, 1934)
A color postcard of the interior of Brother Fridolin’s Grotto of the Agony. The article accompanying the previous newspaper image described the interior thus: “Passing through a short black corridor the visitor finds himself on a small gallery. Below he sees the figure of Christ keeling before the angel who came as He prayed at the Mount of Olives. In the middle background lie the disciples in sleep, while approaching from an entrance in the rear one sees Judas and the soldiers coming to take Jesus away on the road that ended at Calvary. The whole scene is bathed in soft, reflected lights–rose, violet and green–arranged by means of colored panes of glass in apertures in the roof. All the figures were sculptured by Brother Fridolin. His only assistance in building the grotto was given by three brothers who help him in the arduous task of setting the heavy stones in place.”
A procession, likely during the 1950s, held before the Lourdes grotto at the Miramar Retreat Center. (Society of the Divine Word Archives)

Grotto at East Troy, Wisconsin

The biography of Brother Fridolin also mentions a grotto he built at Divine Word’s Holy Ghost Seminary and Mission House at East Troy, Wisconsin. That location was established as a seminary, and served as a high school, summer camp and later a retreat house, due to its beautiful location on Lake Beulah. It is currently used as a retirement home and retreat for Divine Word and other religious.

The Lourdes grotto was likely built by Brother Fridolin during the 1930s, and still exists.

A modern photo of the beautiful Lourdes grotto at the East Troy Divine Word location, taken and very kindly shared by Father Edward Peklo, SVD.(Society of the Divine Word Archives)

Grottos at St. Michael’s Mission, Conesus, New York

The last location at which Brother Fridolen worked was the St. Michael’s Mission House in Conesus, New York near Hemlock Lake, established in 1924. He built a Rosary Grotto portraying the five joyful mysteries (1937), a Grotto of the Agony/Gethsemane (1938), and a Lourdes Grotto (1939).

A c.1980 photo of the Lourdes Grotto built in summer 1939 at St. Michael’s Mission House. Even in partial ruin this was a beautiful scene. (Hemlock and Canadice Lakes website)

Other Grottos

The Brother Fridolin biography mentions grottos built by him in several other locations:

Brother Fridolin died in 1939 at age 71 at a hospital near St. Michael’s Mission at Conesus. His biography states that “he died peacefully surrounded by friends, relatives, and members of the religious community.”

Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, October 28, 1939.