Arts Tour de grotto

A guide to San Antonio’s Lourdes shrines, rustic & resplendent

Like St. Bernadette, my experience with grottos began with an amble. I’m not Catholic, but I like to walk my dog, Ella, over to St. Anthony’s High School, where she can run unfettered loops around the football field. One summer evening, Ella led me to the gurgling fountain in the school’s grotto. While she whined to be in the cool water, I contemplated the Virgin, encircled in bright blue plastic flowers, a rosary in her hand and a rose on each toe.

Above, St. Bernadette kneels before the Immaculate Conception, at the Lourdes Grotto on the grounds of the Oblate Theological Seminary. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

In a subsequent walk, I found the grotto at University of Incarnate Word, and it was similar enough to pique my curiosity. Why put the Virgin in a cave? A call to the Catholic Archdiocese revealed that the grottos are not a San Antonio phenomenon, but replicas of a similar shrine in France.

In the town of Lourdes, nestled in the foothills of the French Pyrenees, there lived a poor, illiterate, but devout teenager, Bernadette Soubirous. On a cold evening in 1858, she left La Cachot — the abandoned prison cell where her family lived — to search for firewood.

San Antonio Grotto Locations

Holy Cross Preparatory,
426 N. San Felipe

St. Anthony’s high school,
3200 McCullough

St. Anthony de Padua Church,
102 Lorenz Road

Incarnate Word,
4301 Broadway

Little Flowers Basilica grotto,
920 Kentucky

Lourdes Grotto of the Southwest,
5722 Blanco

In drizzling rain, she made her way to a grotto on the Gave du Pau, where the river washed up trash and firewood, and pig farmers fed their swine. Before crossing the river, Bernadette paused to remove her stockings. Kneeling, she heard a gust of wind. She turned to look at the meadow on the other side of the river, but the trees were still. Again she bent toward her task, and again the wind came up. Looking toward the grotto, as she would later write, she “saw a lady dressed in white wearing a blue girdle and a yellow rose on each foot ...”

Over a fortnight, Bernadette saw the lady 18 times. In one of her raptures, the lady asked her to crawl into the cave, where there had been no water, and wash her face and drink. Bernadette found only a puddle, but scratched at the earth until there was enough muddy water to wash her face. The next day a small spring flowed where she had dug.

Today there is a basilica on the site, and 3 million pilgrims flock there each year. “It’s very beautiful,” says Father John Lias of St. Mary’s University, who has led tours there. “In the afternoon, there are candlelight processions where they sing and pray, and they carry the sick in on stretchers. It’s a religious experience.”

While France may seem a long way to travel, followers of St. Bernadette have only a short drive; as I have discovered, in San Antonio, one is never too far from a replica of the Lourdes grotto.

On the grounds of St. Anthony de Padua Church sits a small grotto crafted in 1939 by Dionicio Rodriguez, the famed faux-bois artist, in chunks of porous vuggy rock. Although shaped and gated like a boxy mausoleum, the shrine is made more grotto-like by the shells — snail, clam, and conch — mortared to the walls, and a rusty camp lantern that hangs above St. Bernadette’s head as she kneels before the Virgin.

Inquiries into the grotto yielded only that at one time it featured a fountain, and that there was no spiritual significance to the shells. “It is simply a matter of using the materials available at the time,” said Sister Marianne of St. Anthony’s.

At the top of the grotto, right, a Tepeyac shrine celebrates the Virgen de Guadalupe. The Oblate grotto is an exact replica of the original site where Bernadette first saw the Virgin in Lourdes France, in 1858. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

The grotto at UIW is only decoratively gated. Built in 1904, the limestone shrine is a decent replica of the Lourdes grotto. With one exception: “Allez boire a la fontaine et vous laver,” invites a sign, but there is no water. There is an altar and amphitheater seating for visitors, but when there is no church service, it is equally fun to walk around the grotto.

Around to the left, a short tunnel, whose entrance is marked by another mysterious conch shell, dead ends in a pile of bricks. Just beyond that, a rustic path winds past a broken wrought-iron gate — a desiccated bouquet of roses on its the threshold — into the back of the grotto, but more tempting is the short staircase that leads up the grotto.

Once atop the shrine, one sees the remnants of small garden beds, and a well-trod path leading down the other side. Ignore the sign that says, “Do not climb the shrine,” it’s too late for you, and explore the little room beneath it. Once gated, it features a barrel-vaulted ceiling, old knob-and-tube connectors, and a tiny board shelf wired to old pipes and holding three bricks.

Over at Holy Cross Preparatory, the fathers are hoping to discourage the children from climbing the grotto by planting roses in the planters that curve around its backside. Why roses? Although modeled after the Lourdes grotto, this shrine features a nearly 6-foot statue of the Virgen de Guadalupe, purchased in Guadalajara, Mexico. “The school is 97 percent Hispanic, so the lady plays a significant role in our theology,” said Angel Cedillo, Holy Cross principal.

An alligator once inhabited the grotto at St. Anthony’s High School, where the Virgin Mary, dressed just as Bernadette saw her, with white roses over her toes, is ringed with bright blue plastic flowers. (Photo by Susan Pagani)

The grotto, recently donated and constructed by the Class of ’71, is made of moss rock. Cedillo says the best time to visit the shrine is in the morning, or in inclement weather. “When it gets wet, the rock glows green and orange — it’s as though it’s speaking to you,” he says.

If you must climb a grotto, try the Lourdes Grotto of the Southwest on Oblate. This time of year, Mary appears to be floating above a giant bouquet of poinsettias and the vines that grow down the front of the grotto are hung with tiny white lights. Although the spring at the back of the grotto is dry, the gift shop sells bottles of Lourdes Water — sans poor Bernadette’s mud — with which to wash your face and hands, and candles.

Buy a candle and climb the winding stairs, past endless house-shaped candle niches, to the top of the grotto. There you’ll find a Tepeyac shrine featuring Our Lady of Guadalupe in a brilliant blue shawl with gold stars, and Saint Juan Diego, who is barely visible beneath piles of long-stem red roses. Candles spill out of the niches and onto the stairs and rails, many with personal prayers to the Virgin scrawled across the plastic tapers in permanent ink.

People also leave messages for the Virgin at the Little Flower Basilica grotto. Adorned only with statues of St. Bernadette and the Immaculate Conception and crumbling in places, Little Flower looks appropriately humble, but a little abandoned. The Carmelite fathers did not return our calls, but Dora Torres in the gift shop confirmed, “It’s not kept up. We don’t have a gardener, and the fathers don’t have time to take care of it, but people still come and pray, and leave candles.”

Sure enough, I found secret notes, pages torn from a Day Timer folded up and carefully hidden under the rocks of the grotto, and a few feathers wrapped in a plant stem and a bit of cardboard packaging reading “cleans and protects.”

Still, I must admit my heart belongs to the grotto at St. Anthony’s High School. Created by the Oblate fathers in 1902, before the school was built, the rocky shrine looks at home among the twisted oak trees and ferns that surround it. In the evenings, the shrine is lit with an eerily lovely green light, and when the wind comes up in the trees, it’s easy to recall young Bernadette peering around herself in the dark. Droplets of water fall from the roof of the cave, which is shaped to look like exaggerated stalactites, and, with the soft gurgle of the fountain, it’s a peaceful spot to sit and ponder your navel.

Alejandro Calderon, a spokesman for the school, tells me that back in the ’50s the boys put a live alligator in the grotto and that it lived there for a time. Today, only goldfish and Tetra swim around in the pool, but I can identify with that prankster urge. Around the back of the grotto, there’s an empty niche. Although it looks about my height, I have, so far, resisted the urge to climb the grotto.

By Susan Pagani

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