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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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).
The Brother Fridolin biography mentions grottos built by him in several other locations:
- a grotto and stations of the cross for the Sisters of the Precious Blood at Rome City, Indiana
- Fort Sheridan, Illinois (perhaps at the military camp chapel?)
- Wilmette, Illinois (at an unknown institution, perhaps Maria Immaculata Convent?)
- Huntington, Indiana (probably the Lourdes grotto at the St. Felix Capuchin Monastery)
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.”