Church Hopping: Grotto of Our Lady of LourdesArts, Church Hopping, Columns, Featured, Visual Arts — By Stephanie Nikolopoulos on October 9, 2012 at 6:00 am
A car packed with teenagers was speeding down the street at the exact moment we were approaching the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes on foot. It was an unseasonably warm October day in 2011, and the car window was rolled down. Or maybe the rebellious, rowdy passengers rolled it down when they saw us, a group of about twenty-five people, looking eagerly toward the Stations of the Cross. ”God sucks!” a teenager yelled to the support of his peers. The car vanished down the road as we turned around.
I had no idea if the people I was visiting the Grotto with were Christian or not. It was quite possible many of them hated organized religion. We were pilgrims of a different sort. We had boarded Greyhounds, driven cars, and possibly even hitchhiked across the country to attend Lowell Celebrates Kerouac, an annual literary festival in which participants bar hop, listen to jazz, and tour the Beat Generation author’s old stomping grounds. The author of On the Road wrote vividly of drugs, sex, fast cars, and prison time, and his work has long been associated with the countercultural.
Of course then so has Jesus’. Jesus was a Jewish “leftist,” said Roger Brunelle, the tour leader, later when we were looking up at the Crucifixion. Kerouac’s books were replete with spiritual musings, and Brunelle had us read aloud sections that described church life and Christian faith. He also took us to the Catholic church that Kerouac attended as a child in the 1920s and ’30s and the one near the Grotto in which his funeral was held in 1969.
Brunelle told us the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes is the “holiest place in Lowell because it’s not connected to any organized religion.” It was “paid for by the people.”
Church: Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes
Location: near 357 Pawtucket St., the Franco American School, in Lowell, Massachusetts
Architect: Jean-Baptiste Morin
History: The Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes in Lowell, Massachusetts, isn’t a church in the architectural sense of the word, but if we think of the Church not just a physical building but as a body of believers then the Grotto is a captivating sacred space for worshippers.
Near the majestic Pyrenees Mountains that create the natural border between France and Spain, lies the small French market town of Lourdes, where in 1858 mystic adolescent Bernadette Soubirous had a vision of the Virgin Mary. Speaking in the Gascon dialect of Occitan — now considered an endangered language it was once common to the region – the apparition identified herself as the Immaculate Conception (called Our Lady of Lourdes there) and said that a chapel should be built there by the stream near the grotto, where the visions took place. Although many villagers doubted the poor peasant girl, who while entranced by the visions ate grass and stuffed her face with mud, today nearly five million pilgrims from around the world visit the numerous chapels that have since been built.
Many of the first white people to settle in Lowell, Massachusetts, were French Canadians, who carried on with them their French Catholic faith. They established Catholic churches, schools, and orphanages, where instead of Gascon they spoke joual, the working-class French-Canadian dialect.
In the late 1870s architect Shepard S. Woodcock—who in 1869 had built the Grace United Methodist Church in Keene, New Hampshire—built a home in Lowell in the Second Empire style for the successful businessman Frederick Ayer. Ten years before his death, the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate bought his gigantic home to use a Franco-American orphanage in Lowell. According to a translated article on The Franco-Americans in Lowell, Massachusetts, St. Joseph’s Parish, which at the time was pastored by Father Henri Watelle, had an article called “Is this dream possible?” in their bulletin:
The dream was to construct a grotto in honor of Our Lady of Lourdes on the grounds of the Orphanage; it would be a monumental work comparable in size and detail to the one in Lourdes, France. The goal was to give the poor orphans an idea of their heavenly mother, while forgetting as much as possible that they no longer had one here on earth.
As it turns out this dream was taken to heart and the majority of the people wanted to see it become reality.
In the mind of its promoters this dream could be realized in 5 to 6 years at best. Thanks to everyone’s generosity, it came to pass in less than 6 months.
The dream was realized thanks to local contractor Jean-Baptiste Morin, who began building the Grotto on May 15, 1911.
The orphanage was discontinued in 1963 and became the Franco American School. St. Joseph’s Parish has closed its doors. The Grotto, though, still exists.
Stations of the Cross: Leading to the Grotto are fourteen statues of the Stations of the Cross, made in October 1912. These are sculptures depicting various Christian scenes. They were designed by a French artist and made of terra cotta and steel.
Beginning in 2008 and taking a period of four years, Kevin Roy repainted the statues. A. Jussaume Construction made the new cases, which are protective boxes with large windows through which one can see the sculptures. The restoration was also made possible by former Democratic Massachusetts state senator Steven C. Panagiotakos; principal of the Franco American School Lorraine Richard s.c.q; assistant principal of the Franco American School Jane Holland s.c.q; historian Roger Brunelle; principal of ComeToLowell.com George DeLuca; former mayor and current councilor Armand P. Mercier; author Paul Marion; and charity employee Anne Sepe.
The Grotto: A grotto is literally a cave, either natural or manmade. In this case, it is a manmade cave. The cave is a sacred dwelling place where worshippers can pray and light candles. It’s large enough that a handful of people can comfortably stand or sit inside, but small enough that even a medium-sized tour group cannot fit in it. The cave is covered in natural greenery, which lends feelings of enchantment to the cave. The Grotto feels like a secret sacred space.
In addition to Morin’s replica of the Grotto in France, there are actual materials from Lourdes. As the Franco American School reports:
At the end of May, water from the miraculous spring and two stones extracted from the grotto where Mary appeared to Bernadette Soubirous arrived in Lowell. One of the stones, taken from near the wild rose bush close to the place touched by the Blessed Virgin’s feet, is clearly marked on the grotto.
On September 4th of the same year, the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, imported from France, was solemnly carried from St. Joseph Church to the grounds of the Franco American Orphanage and permanently placed in the niche of the Grotto. A statue of Bernadette was placed at the base.
On October 21, 1912, a statue of Our Lady of Deliverance, a six foot artistic masterpiece donated by Jean-Baptiste Morin, was installed on a pedestal at the end of the Way of the Cross.
Leading up to the top of the Grotto is the Scala Sancta, the holy stairs that pilgrims climb—on their knees. At the top, there is a Crucifixion sculpture. When it was first built, the cross was made of wood, but Honora Adonas Girard replaced it with a steel version in 1950. The same sculpture of Jesus Christ remains affixed. It is made of metal and was sculpted in France.
Political connections: Catholic president John F. Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline visited the grounds; you can see a photo of Jackie at the orphanage here. As mentioned in the architecture section above, former Democratic Massachusetts state senator Steven C. Panagiotakos and former mayor and current councilor Armand P. Mercier were involved in the restoration of the Stations of the Cross.
Get lit: Franco-American author Jack Kerouac (On the Road) was born in Lowell in 1922 and used to visit the Grotto with his mother. It features prominently in his book Dr. Sax:
It belonged to the orphanage on the corner of Pawtucket St. and School St. At the head of the white bridge – a big grotto is their backyard, mad, vast, religious, the Twelve Stations of the Cross, little individual twelve alters set in, you go in front, everything but incense in the air – the road of the river mysteries of the nature, fireflies in the night flickering to the waxy statues – culminating, was the gigantic pyramid of steps upon which the cross itself poked phallically up with its poor burden the Son of Man all skewered across it in his Agony and Fright –
This is a photograph take by Ken Regan (via Rolling Stone) of musician Bob Dylan standing below the Cross at the Grotto in Lowell. Dylan visited Lowell in 1975 during his Rolling Thunder Revue Tour. Historian Roger Brunelle told the story that when Bob Dylan came here with poet Allen Ginsberg, who was friends with Kerouac, they said a Buddhist prayer and lit candles in the Grotto. Dylan felt like he should be able to keep the candle because he’d paid for it, but Ginsberg explained to him that he had to leave it behind because it prays for you.
Media: The Lowell Sun has a short but informative video about the history of the Grotto, the restoration, and the people who have stopped by the Stations of the Cross and the Grotto.
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Stephanie Nikolopoulos write the Church Hopping column and is the visual arts editor for Burnside Writers Collective. She is coauthoring Burning Furiously Beautiful: The True Story of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road with Paul Maher Jr. and writes about endangered languages. Her website is www.stephanienikolopoulos.com.