The letter, heavy with emotion and longing, reads like this: “[J]ust so many times, how I long for the Grotto . . . if I could go to the Grotto now then I think I could sing inside. I could be full of faith and poetry and loveliness and know more beauty, tenderness and compassion. This is soggy sentimentalism I know. Cold prayers from a hospital bed are just as pleasing to God as more youthful prayers from a Grotto on the lid of night.”
That letter forever connects its author, Dr. Tom Dooley, an ND student in the late 1940s, to the Notre Dame Grotto. It was written to then-president Father Theodore Hesburgh, CSC, in 1960 from Hong Kong, where Dooley was hospitalized for a recurrence of cancer that had attacked his spine.
Following Dooley’s death in 1961, his letter was distributed by The Associated Press and printed throughout the world. Later a duplicate of the letter, engraved on stainless steel and enclosed in a box with a Plexiglas top, was attached permanently to the kneeling rail of the Grotto.
It’s no secret that the Grotto has made a difference in the lives of countless students, alumni and campus visitors since its construction in 1896. A replica of the original Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto in Lourdes, France, the Grotto of Notre Dame has been a calming solace for thousands of students searching for spiritual guidance from the Virgin Mary. And the desire for the comfort of the Grotto, known as one of the most sacred spots on campus, doesn’t fade when students graduate.
“Thousands of people pray every day at the Grotto — it’s hard to go by there and not see someone praying,” says Father Hesburgh.
Though some are at a loss to articulate the mystique of the Grotto, Hesburgh explains it like this: “Obviously, we can pray anywhere and everywhere, but there are certain shrines around the world, such as the Grotto in Lourdes, where people gather for prayer because they are very special places — places where often miracles have happened. We’ll never know what kinds of private miracles have happened in peoples’ lives because they prayed at the Grotto.”
So what about those people who are scattered across the country, or even around the world, who long for the serenity and comfort of the Grotto? Well, it turns out they can pray there, too — virtually.
Pray.nd.edu is a website the Notre Dame Alumni Association launched in 2007. It has been described as a sacred place where liturgical and Gospel readings reflect the current times, and where new inspirational thoughts and prayers, most of which are composed by Holy Cross priests, are updated daily. The site includes videos of serene campus scenes and also has a link where readers can submit Mass requests. Visitors are encouraged to submit prayer requests by email, and every week representatives from the Alumni Association light a special green candle at the Grotto on their behalf.
Since its launch, pray.nd.edu has had close to 350,000 visits and 7,000 prayer requests. People of all ages and backgrounds — including current students — visit pray.nd.edu every day. Some of them ask for prayers for others. Some use the site for meditation or prayer to focus their lives. Others simply want to keep the memory of their campus prayer life alive.
So what is it about pray.nd.edu that beckons the most faithful to its pages? According to University President Rev. John I. Jenkins, CSC, for many, it’s a link to Notre Dame, which itself is a sacred place where people of all ages draw strength to love, to suffer in hope, to find faith in challenge, to discover their path and, ultimately, to remember their purpose.
Because of this, Father Hesburgh says it’s only natural that those who can’t be on campus would opt to pray here virtually.
“There’s no more powerful force on earth than prayer,” Hesburgh explains. “Prayer — at Notre Dame especially, where students have prayer and Mass in their dormitories every day — becomes an important part in the lives of many people.”
The Grotto has definitely become an important part of Bob Misnik’s life. Misnik, who lives in Williamstown, New Jersey, calls the Grotto his “favorite place on earth,” and always made it his first stop when he would visit campus after dropping his daughter off at Saint Mary’s College and his son at neighboring Holy Cross College.
“To me, there is no place on earth like the Grotto,” Misnik says. “Its physical beauty is breathtaking, especially on a winter night with the candles flickering and snow covering the rocks around the statue of Mary. The peace and serenity that comes over you is very difficult to describe. . . . I have always been one to pray to Mary, asking her to intercede for others. And whether I am kneeling or sitting on one of the benches, I feel a spiritual presence that I have never experienced anywhere else. Lighting a candle at the Grotto just makes you feel at peace. All of your worries and troubles seem to be eased at that time.”
Two years ago, Misnik read about the pray.nd.edu website in the campus newspaper, The Observer.
“When I went to pray.nd.edu, I had tears in my eyes,” he recalls. “I have spent many a late night there alone in my thoughts and prayers.”
So when Thanksgiving came around two years ago and Misnik’s son wasn’t able to come home for the holiday, Misnik turned to pray.nd.edu to request a special prayer for his son. He quickly received a personal response from the Alumni Association assuring him that a prayer would, indeed, be said on behalf of his son and that a special candle would be lit in his honor.
“I sent the Alumni Association a note thanking them for their comforting words and prayers,” Misnik says. “It was so reassuring to know that the Lord and Mary would watch over him and protect him. What a wonderful opportunity to pray at the Grotto from 700 miles away.”
Although Misnik’s daughter graduated from Saint Mary’s College last May and his son transferred to a school closer to home in New Jersey, Misnik still finds himself longing for the place that brought him so much comfort in South Bend.
“Being able to pray at the Grotto through the prayer site makes it different from normal prayer,” Misnik says. “Having the opportunity to have someone light a candle for me at the Grotto makes the actual process of prayer seem that much stronger.”
Pray.nd.edu has become more than a website for the thousands of people who have visited since it launched. For them, it has become a lifeline to one of Notre Dame’s most sacred traditions: praying at the Grotto.
Angela Sienko is alumni editor of this magazine.