That One Time . . . The Grotto

Author: Notre Dame Magazine

Thatonetime 1200x686

Mary’s stare

May he who is without sin cast the first stone. — John 8:7

The Grotto reprimands me for my ego. Sophomore year, I was on the kneeler praying or thinking about school when someone whizzed into the Grotto while taking a break from her jog. She scampered by me, grabbed a candle and lit it, hardly breaking her eight-minute-a-mile pace.

Doesn’t she see it costs $3 for a candle?! Stop being a leech! I fumed about my classmate’s “inconsiderate nature,” then looked up to meet Mary’s eyes. I stared at Mary, and she stared back at me. I then remembered that simple verse in John’s Gospel. In that instant, Mary’s stare changed in my perception to a look of pity. Oh, how little I’ve learned from her son’s death! If I could be there in the Grotto praying to God, how could I overlook the things I do that are worse than not paying for a prayer candle? One might quickly uncover the lies I’ve told or the hurtful things I’ve done. Maybe the runner had paid for extra candles last time; regardless, I’d been ready to throw her to the wolves.

Since that moment, any time I need to level-set my judgment, I think about Mary in the Grotto, and I am humbled by God.

— Mason Sponem ’21


Favor granted

My parents accompanied me on my first visit to the Grotto on August 26, 1978. The bells of Sacred Heart rang out to celebrate the election of Pope John Paul I, highlighting an otherwise scripted freshman orientation. After kneeling under the statue of Our Lady, my mother put her hand on my shoulder and pointed to a white stone plaque. It read: 



FEBRUARY 26, 1918




G.F. — A.M.

“For the next four years,” she said, “Our Lady will be with you, and so will I.”

I have no idea what favor was granted 60 years earlier to inspire this memorial. Mom was convinced it was her. Regina Ortman’s date of birth? February 26, 1918.

While taking summer classes in 1981, I got a call that Mom had cancer. My instinct was to rush to the Grotto. I read again about Tom Dooley. I lit a candle. I prayed. I requested a favor.

Mom battled for more than two years and made it to my graduation, albeit in a wheelchair. In the years since, whenever visiting the Grotto, I look up at the plaque few others notice and connect with my heavenly mother and earthly Mom.

It was unreadable for many years. I was pleased to see it restored when I visited for my 40th reunion in 2022.

— Michael Ortman ’82

Grotto That One Time
Matt Cashore ’94

Elegant grace

At first you go alone because you feel timid and unsure. Then you read about the mystical magic this place had for Dr. Tom Dooley — who wrote a month before dying. He knew that at the Grotto, you can really pray.

After four swift years of lovely, late-night visits, you revel in the recollection. Especially the times when, cloaked with snow softly illuminated by the glow of candles, it radiates an extraordinary, elegant grace. This will always be a part of your soul. Your legacy.

When a place like this warms your soul, you will never be cold again.

Decades later you help fulfill Dooley’s wishes when a group you belong to is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. So, Dooley’s spiritual wish lives on. And this place, these people, this University, this spirit brings relief to a world that begs for sacred stillness.

— Marc Bayliss ’70


Flickering lights beckon

Late one night, I was keeping a friend company as she ran experiments in her lab. We were catching each other up on our stressful weeks when she asked, “Do you want to go to the Grotto?”

We chatted as we walked across campus in the dark, but as soon as we descended the steps to the Grotto, we hushed. Such is the reverence that a thousand prayers flickering in the darkness demands.

We lit candles for our unspoken intentions, then took our places on the kneelers, shoulder to shoulder with other pilgrims, and emptied our hearts to God.

I know one does not need the Grotto to make a petition before God. God hears our prayers just as clearly from hospital beds, prison cells and kitchen tables as he does from dedicated shrines. I have no qualms suggesting that maybe the Grotto is for the sinner and not for the glory of God.

But here’s the thing: my friend who suggested our Grotto sojourn? She’s not high church. She’s not really church at all. Even those skeptical of formal religion can sense in places beautiful and transcendent God’s presence and grace. It’s why a person never finds himself alone at the Grotto — not in the dead of night in bleak midwinter, not in the heat of summer when most residence halls sit empty. Those flickering lights, those silent prayers, beckon us to the stone cave where our souls are quieted to stillness.

— Emily McNally ’17M.S.


A candle in the darkness

In July 2006, I was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer. Two months earlier, I’d helped Notre Dame Women Connect stage its first-ever event. It was a birthday luncheon in Chicago for Father Ted Hesburgh, at which we presented him with four thick binders of letters from alumnae thanking him for the gift of coeducation and detailing how it had impacted our lives.

After reading those letters, the committee decided we had the makings of a book, Thanking Father Ted: Thirty-Five Years of Notre Dame Coeducation, which I would edit. So, after each chemo treatment, I’d drive over to school and do interviews and research. The priests and my campus friends would buck me up. They’d tell me how great I looked. In reality, I was as white and puffy as the Pillsbury Doughboy. 

One Friday night after a pep rally, I visited the Grotto. As I passed a small group, someone said, “A.T.?” It was former quarterback Bill Zloch ’66, ’74J.D., who’d been in my husband’s Law School study group. Bill’s wife, Nancy, and their family were all there from Fort Lauderdale. They’d just lit a candle for me and had been praying for my recovery. Neither they nor I knew we were both on campus.

Whenever I’m at the Grotto, I always remember that night, the Zlochs and the power of Grotto prayers. 

— Ann Therese Darin Palmer ’73, ’75MBA


Tears of joy

I would visit once or twice a week, usually late at night, sitting on a bench enjoying a peaceful moment. One night during senior year, I was there alone when a female friend came down the steps behind the admin building, went straight to the kneeler and settled in. After a few moments, I could hear her sobbing. I got up from my bench and went to her, tapped her on the shoulder and knelt down. She looked startled at first, then recognized me. I asked, “Is everything OK?”

She surprised me by breaking into a smile and chuckling. “Yes. I’m better than OK.” I gave her a questioning look.

“My boyfriend just proposed. I was so overwhelmed, I couldn’t think of what to do, so I came here. I haven’t even talked to my parents yet!”

I laughed and congratulated her. After a quick hug, I returned to my bench. Sitting there, I realized I was the first person to know of their engagement. It reinforced the idea that prayers of thanksgiving are just as important as prayers for help. Checking the alumni directory as I write, it appears they are still married.

Each time I return to the Grotto, I remember that night — and remember to thank God for all the blessings in my life. 

— Tom Varnum ’89


When Jesus visited us

It was October 2005 and excitement was in the air. Home football weekend? No.

Class canceled due to snow? No — and that never happens anyway.

It was something much better, much more divine, shall I say. Jesus was coming!

Let me rephrase: Jim “JC” Caviezel, “Jesus” from the The Passion of the Christ, was coming. Fittingly, he made his appearance at the Grotto, drawing students from all corners of campus and beyond. As he took the podium, awash in the candlelight, we crowded in, trying to get closer, eyes glued to this person who had made Jesus and the Passion so much more real to us. A silence fell over the Grotto as we waited for him to speak.

I wish I remembered more of what he said, but what is seared into my memory is when he cried out “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” It was as if we were standing on that faraway hill looking up at the Cross. Sadness washed over me. At that moment, feeling so close to Jesus, I wished I felt that way all the time.

Caviezel was a lot like the Jesus he portrayed onscreen. Gentle, soft-spoken, humble but also confident and encouraging. He wore ordinary clothes. Was a devout Catholic. A riveting speaker. Seeing him that night, I think we all felt a little like it was Jesus speaking to us.

And maybe, in a way, it was.

— Tiffani Jiang ’09


In the hands of God

In May 1997, my mother had trouble walking to the gymnasium to see her first grandchild, my oldest son, graduate from high school. She had to sit on the first-floor bleachers because she was out of breath. Many weeks later she was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer.

She underwent chemo and radiation therapy for many months and felt lousy and worn out as Christmas approached. To boost her spirits, I wrote to Father Ted Hesburgh and asked him to write my mother with some words of encouragement. On December 18, 1997, my mother received a letter from Father Ted, who told her, “I think the secret is to leave ourselves completely in the Hands of God and to love Him despite the various crosses he sends our way.” He wished her a joyous Christmas and said he hoped he could arrange a family Mass in the New Year. My mother was thrilled with the letter and the hope of that Mass.

Sure enough, that spring my mother received a phone call from Father Ted’s assistant, asking to set a date for a family Mass. It took place that summer with my father and all her children and grandchildren in attendance.

After Mass we went to the Grotto in prayer and thanksgiving. It was a day at Notre Dame none of us will forget.

— Joe Hornett ’76


Pilgrims to a place like home

I studied abroad in London during the spring of 2002. In the aftermath of 9/11, and with more reports of potential terrorist activity, our plans to visit Rome and Venice were scuttled. The U.S. State Department warned Americans to avoid piazzas, especially on Easter Sunday.

We made a new itinerary, still flying into Milan, but traveling by train west into France, first to Marseilles and then to Lourdes. We wanted to see where Our Lady had appeared to St. Bernadette. My friend Courtney and I walked the two miles from the train station to the shrine. We stopped into a shop to buy several small bottles to collect water from the spring at the Grotto.

When we arrived, we joined many pilgrims on the same journey. It was the octave of Easter. Masses were celebrated all day in different languages. We filled our small plastic bottles with holy water. Along the path, crutches and walking sticks had been left behind, rendered unnecessary by the water’s healing power.

The Grotto of Lourdes is much bigger than the one at Notre Dame. Mary looks out from high above where the rock is hewn away. But though we were thousands of miles from campus, so much felt familiar. People lit candles, prayed the rosary, found solace in simply being there. We found the love of Our Lady. It felt like Notre Dame. It felt like home.

— Christina Lindemann Sikorski ’03

Notre Dame Magazine invites personal essays of no more than 250 words on subjects of nostalgic interest to alumni of all ages. Here are upcoming topics, deadlines and details about how to submit.