Late last fall my friend Thomas Karam ’17, then working for campus ministry, asked me to guess how many candles burn in the Grotto in a year. Whatever I said, I was way off. More than 600 a day, he replied, savoring his chance to share news from a hot topic in his office. He let me complete the math: some 20,000 candles in a typical month — a lot more in some months than others — and nearly a quarter million candles each year.
The reason Karam knew this rather astounding campus factoid kind of shocked me: Every one of those candle holders — the cooling glass jar, minus the wax and the wick but including the tiny, metal, wick-holding disc still glued to the bottom — was destined for a landfill.
Later I thought about what 250,000 candles represents — all the exams and papers, the difficult decisions about majors, jobs and relationships, the anxieties over things unchangeable or unmanageable, the earnest appeals for strength, for burdens lightened, for simple consolation, a miracle. Day in, day out, campus believers keep a pace of about 25 intercessory pleas per hour, one every two or three minutes, even in the quiet hours of an icy or broiling night. That sounds about right to me — faith measured out in something more comforting than coffee spoons.
But as impressive as those numbers are, the statistics for the Grotto’s primary environmental impact — glass waste — were depressing. Football weekends were the worst, as boxes of discarded glass overwhelmed the giant trash bin in the driveway behind the old Corby Hall. Each empty jar weighs about three-quarters of a pound, meaning that all that single-use prayer was generating more than 90 tons of solid waste every year — an ecological dilemma with an especially heavy spiritual and moral dimension.
Karam worked for Kate Barrett ’85, whose job as campus ministry’s associate director of liturgy includes oversight of the Grotto — which, as a spiritual and physical asset of the Congregation of Holy Cross is technically not on University land, despite being the heart and soul of University life, and is widely regarded by students as their most special, most sacred, favorite place on campus. We could all pray without candles, Barrett admits, but the tradition at Notre Dame has become part of what we do and who we are.
I never thought about what happened to all those waxy glass containers once the candles burned out. But for years, solving the simple problem of what to do with them proved elusive, nearly as unfathomable a mystery as Mary’s appearances to Saint Bernadette near Lourdes, France, in 1858. It baffled anyone who attempted it, and that bothered people, not the least of whom were the Grotto’s volunteer caretakers and the priests living in Corby.
But in July 2018, a group of those bothered people determined to find a solution. And now they’ve done it.
The weight of a prayer
Glass recycling, the obvious answer, wasn’t an option.
On her first day at work for Notre Dame’s Office of Sustainability that July, Caitlin Hodges Jacobs ’17 received an email from Brother Patrick Lynch, CSC, assistant superior of the Corby community. “Our Grotto candle glass containers are not being recycled because we are told they contain wax,” he wrote. “I was wondering if you can offer any advice on the matter.”
Lynch is a Grotto regular. Trained as an accountant, he collects the money from the donation box — the modest proceeds support Holy Cross’ overseas missions — and he was more distressed than anyone by the tonnage of glass headed for a landfill. His personal crusade to redirect the glass into recycling bins had been rejected by the handling company because of contamination — the residual wax and all. An effort four years earlier to work with the Office of Sustainability, the University’s environmental troubleshooters, had stalled out. But, you know: Try, try again.
So Lynch found his way to Jacobs, who called Mary Froning at the basilica, who pointed her to Matt Letzelter, the University’s sales rep at Root Candle in Medina, Ohio, who suggested she talk to Jim Kavanagh, who works at the Presbytery . . . with Brother Lynch.
It wasn’t a runaround. Within three days, Jacobs had made contact with the people best suited to help her figure things out.
Kavanagh shared his institutional memory. As the lay administrator of Corby Hall, he takes care of details for the 60 priests who call it home, handling their finances, food service, the vehicle fleet and property. Since it opened in 1896, the Grotto has been Corby’s back yard.
So each candle, after its turn in the hot spotlight of campus spirituality, became just another piece of campus trash. And it was adding up fast. Jacobs calculated that Grotto glass accounted for 1 percent or more of the University’s annual waste production by weight.
Having given the shrine’s environmental impact considerable thought since he started at Corby in 2008, Kavanagh had collected cases of old candles. He showed Jacobs glass and plastic samples of various shapes and sizes, all with telltale wax residues revealing how they’d performed under different conditions — in, say, the temperate air of a Senior Last Visit or the polar vortex snows of 2014.
Kavanagh knew the issues. Safety is a big one. Plastic, lighter and less energy-intensive to produce, cracks too easily — a fire hazard, as Notre Dame has learned from experience. Further, between staff turnover and bigger-picture concerns, the fate of the Grotto’s hefty, smooth, safe and satisfying glass candle containers hadn’t gained traction at the University. “We just got lost for four years,” he says. And so each candle, after its turn in the hot spotlight of campus spirituality, became just another piece of campus trash. And it was adding up fast. Jacobs calculated that Grotto glass accounted for 1 percent or more of the University’s annual waste production by weight.
What’s in a candle
Could the candle glass be reused?
Imagine cleaning wax out of 4,000-plus candle jars each week. Caitlin Jacobs sure has. The Grotto’s holders are borosilicate Libbey glass, she says, made in Mexico and more resistant to “thermal shock” than regular glass. Soft-edged, they feel great in your hand. You could pour your morning juice in them, like the bar glasses in my kitchen cabinet.
Sometime amid those first conversations with Kate Barrett, Jim Kavanagh, Mary Froning and Matt Letzelter, Jacobs carted some home. She washed them by hand, testing different temperatures and timing herself to gauge how long it might take a team of volunteers to accomplish the whole task. She ran the glasses through dishwashers, researching industrial and medical-grade machines to determine energy use and cost-effectiveness. The hazards were prohibitive: the risk of creating a sewer-system fatberg without the right kind of filtration and the grim certainty of draining carbon-based polymers into wastewater.
Freezing the glass was the best way to unglue the metal wick holder but didn’t remove enough wax to make the jars reliably refillable. “And that process is labor-intensive,” notes Jacobs’ appreciative boss, sustainability director Carol Mullaney, awed by her employee’s commitment. The solution had to be, well, sustainable. Hand-washing, it seemed, was not.
Candles are complex without even getting into fragrance or color. Root Candle, says Letzelter, the company’s sales rep, traces its history to the 1860s, when Amos Ives Root, a small-town jeweler, took up beekeeping and made his unheralded contribution to world culture: the invention of equipment for harvesting beeswax without destroying the hive. Then he got into the candle business. Notre Dame, a longtime customer, stocks the Grotto with Root candles that are a unique, proprietary blend of natural and artificial compounds that consistently burn for 24 hours in any weather.
In wintertime, Root changes the wick. Cotton-based, the wicks “are manufactured with specific wind and tension characteristics,” plant manager Frank Graziano explains. “A winter wick needs to burn hotter to assure a full wax-melt pool during colder ambient conditions. Otherwise, the wax on the outer edges will not melt, and the candle will not burn effectively.”
It’s not about the glass
“Notre Dame — the Grotto — is a pretty big customer,” says Letzelter, whose territory includes five Midwestern Catholic dioceses. His Notre Dame account covers the Basilica of the Sacred Heart and the 50 campus and Holy Cross chapels dotting the neighborhood.
But good business sense does not alone explain his personal investment in solving Brother Lynch’s problem. He tells a story about a client — a parish school that wanted a statue of Mary to honor a student who was killed by a drunken driver while playing in his front yard — to explain how his faith informs the problem-solving nature of his work.
The school couldn’t afford anything suitable in Root’s catalog. One day at work, Letzelter leaned into an office he didn’t usually visit and there, next to a colleague’s desk, was a free, unclaimed Mary statue that someone had just dropped off. “I know where that statue belongs,” he said, remembering the school’s need for a memorial. Still, it was a hair too tall for the intended niche. He picked a quarry out of the Yellow Pages and asked about their cutting a taller cap for the niche. When he explained further, he was told, “Matt, if any other day you’d be here, you’d be talking to that boy’s grandfather.” The quarry completed the work for free.
So you can’t tell Letzelter what cannot be done. While Jacobs was experimenting with cleaning methods, he made the rounds with specialty recyclers to cull their ideas. Nothing. He consulted with Graziano, Root’s plant manager, who suggested he talk to a company 40 minutes down the road that buys Root’s scrap wax to bundle for other industrial purposes. Letzelter’s conversation with Quality Compound Manufacturing returned to the idea of cleaning wax out of the glass — not to salvage the glass, but to salvage the wax.
Rather than washing the wax down a drain, you keep it. Jacobs had the right idea, just the wrong commodity. By handing the candle glass over to someone who valued the wax, the cleaning problem was solved, and Root could manage the rest.
Once reusing the glass seemed feasible, the remaining questions were about process. How many times can you burn, clean and refill a borosilicate jar with candle wax before the material stresses would make another refill unsafe? What are the implications of transporting tens of thousands of glass jars back and forth between three points — Notre Dame for the use, Quality Compound for the cleanout and Root for the refill? How to tell new jars apart from those on their first, second or third reuse?
If only they had detailed records of candle use at the Grotto, something to help them think through the logistics. That would be a start.
The church lady
“I’m not real sure what my title is,” Mary Froning says, having tossed a load of altar cloths into a washing machine in the basilica’s basement.
For the record, the wry, unassuming Froning is the senior coordinator of basilica operations. That means she runs the sacristy supply, making sure linens are clean, mended and wrinkle-free, that metal is polished, that all those chapels are stocked with “consumables” — hosts, wine, candles. And that makes Froning head caretaker of the Grotto, too.
Until the world took ill in March, she mostly supervised volunteers — lately a law student from Cameroon and a graduate biology student from Missouri. On a normal day, meaning one without a football game or commencement exercise, a caretaker might spend a few hours in the Grotto. They restock the bins with fresh candles, remove the empties and tidy the cave — sweeping out leaves, sifting the taper-cooling sand pits, collecting trash from the plaza.
Froning has little use for titles, but she does care about numbers. For the past seven years, she’s kept a spreadsheet. With the exception of that period when Grotto access was constrained during its 2019 renovation and the reconstruction of Corby Hall, she’s recorded the number of candles loaded into the bins every day along with basic weather information and notable events that help explain salient highs and lows in demand.
The result tells the life story of the University. Capacity jumps from the standard 1,945 rack spaces to 3,121 on football weekends. During peak visitation, caretakers might unload as many as 55 boxes at a time — 48 candles per box.
Froning’s bar graphs reveal other pulses in Notre Dame’s biorhythms. Winter whiteout, downbeat. Junior Parents’ Weekend, up. Holy Week, up slightly; Blue-Gold Game, spike! Occasions sad and happy shape the candlelight chronicle: Father Hesburgh’s death in 2015; the Paris terrorist attacks later that year; the 2018 women’s basketball championship. When a student dies, friends keep vigil, arranging candles to spell out the person’s name in block letters gently aglow.
“Initially it was just hard to try to figure out when to order candles” without good data, Froning says. But it sure came in handy when sorting out an efficient, low-cost system for refilling Grotto candle glasses — and keeping them out of the landfill.
In January 2020, Root’s deliveryman parked his truck on Holy Cross Drive to fulfill an order, then accepted a shipment with enough filmy glass jars for the scrap-wax cleanout and reuse experiment to begin.
Six months later, logistics mapped out and all quality-control checks passed, the first pallets of reusable candles arrived. Two years almost to the day after Jacobs opened Brother Lynch’s first query, she received another email, a message of relief and gratitude.
For now, the plan is simple. Root will check the reused glass containers as they come and go, searching for that magic number of safe reuses, seeking consistencies to make the three-stop delivery rotation workable. What then?
Options under exploration include grinding such glass for sandblasting or road materials, leading to a dramatic reduction if not elimination of landfill-bound glass. Meanwhile, every round of reused candles divides the Grotto’s waste production by another factor, a step toward the University’s 2030 sustainability goals inspired by Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si’.
Faith and science, working together — and other users of liturgical candles are watching. Says Jacobs: “There are so many things about this where there’s no explanation — other than we’re supposed to figure it out.”
John Nagy is managing editor of this magazine.