Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Notre Dame, Our Mother

Notre Dame, our Mother
Tender, strong and true
Proudly in the heavens,
Gleams thy gold and blue.
Glory's mantle cloaks thee
Golden is thy fame,
And our hearts forever,
Praise thee, Notre Dame.
And our hearts forever,
Love thee, Notre Dame.

In celebration of Mother's Day, I am dedicating this post to Our Lady of the Lake, and I encourage all members of the Notre Dame family to remember her as well on Sunday as they honor all the moms in their lives (depending on your particular situation that could be "Mom", wife, sister, daughter, neighbor, friend, or even a stranger in need of an encouraging word). It seems too obvious to mention, but devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary has been remarkable throughout the history of the University of Notre Dame. The University is, of course, named for her. The most significant architectural feature of the University is topped by a 16 foot gilded statue of her. And the most significant place of worship at Notre Dame is not the Basilica, but the Grotto, where one can go at any time of the day or night to pray or meditate under her protective gaze.

In research for this post, I came across what must be considered among the most definitive publications on the history of Notre Dame's Grotto and many of the other religious symbols and landmarks at the University. It is called "A Cave of Candles: The Story Behind the Notre Dame Grotto." The author of this marvelous work is
Dorothy V. Corson, and all credit for collection and publication of the excerpts below must go to her. I highly recommend the entire story to all those interested in Notre Dame history beyond the football field.

Everyone loves the Dome. But it seems that many fail to see that perched on top of the famous Dome is an impressive statue of Mary. Long before Mary set foot there, it had been the dream of Father Edward Sorin to make it so.
As early as 1844, Sorin had envisioned his Lady on the Dome when he wrote:

When this school, Our Lady's school, grows a bit more, I shall raise her aloft so that, without asking, all men shall know why we have succeeded here. To that lovely Lady, raised high on a dome, a Golden Dome, men may look and find the answer.

After the Main Building of the University burned to the ground some thirty five years later, in 1879, Father Sorin renewed his vision:
The fire was my fault, he concluded. I came here as a young man and founded a university which I named after the Mother of God. Now she had to burn it to the ground to show me I dreamed too small a dream. Tomorrow we will build it bigger and, when it is built, we will put a gold dome on top with a golden statue of the Mother of God so that everyone who comes this way will know to whom we owe whatever great future this place has.
Not long after the 1879 fire, the plan for a statue of Mary to top the new Dome had taken shape:
We have received a description of the proposed statue of our Lady which is to adorn the new University, and which the young lady graduates of St. Mary's Academy generously proposed themselves to contribute as their crowning gift to Notre Dame. The model of the statue is that adopted by our late Holy Father, Pope Pius IX, in 1854, on the occasion of the solemn proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception (erected by Pius IX in front of the Propaganda College in Piazza di Spagna in Rome). The material will be of highly polished bronze, sixteen feet in height, the crescent with the serpent beneath, and a starry crown above. Nine of the stars will be seen over and on either side of the head. By day the statue itself and its circle of stars will glitter in the sunlight, an object of beauty for miles around; and by night the nine stars will be lit with the electric light, and thus be a beacon of beauty from a still further distance. As the head will be 186 feet above the earth [sources vary on this; 197 feet seems to be the correct figure], it is evident that the jets of light will be seen by night all over the neighboring city and for a great distance on the various railroads entering here.

The young ladies of St. Mary's have therefore undertaken a beautiful task, a labor of love, in thus placing our Lady's statue in mid-air, as Michael Angelo placed the faultless Grecian temple above St. Peter's, a thing of beauty to rest and shine there, a joy forever. May their labor of love be rewarded, here, with the success of the object which they have in view, and afterwards with the sweet memory of the noble deed which they have accomplished, and may our Blessed Lady look upon them with her brightest smiles when, as the shades of night come on, her beautiful statue lights up the landscape of Notre Dame and St. Mary's!

The dream was realized when the statue of Mary was carefully lifted into place in 1883. I think it is important to note here the close ties between Notre Dame and St. Mary's Academy (now St. Mary's College). The profound nature of the gift from St. Mary's to Notre Dame, and the gratitude and love with which it was received is but a symbol of the close historical ties between the two institutions, which is further detailed in Dorothy Corson's manuscript. Periodically an article will appear in the Observer, written by an undergraduate student without any perspective, insulting Saint Mary's and its students, accusing them, essentially, of being parasites living off of Notre Dame. The crux of the article is typically that St. Mary's students shouldn't be permitted to buy tickets to Notre Dame football games. A reading of the full history of the two schools makes clear how ignorant (and selfish) these young authors can be.

A center of devotion at Notre Dame for over a century is the Grotto, a replica of the Grotto at Lourdes, France. The dedication of the Grotto at Notre Dame was an occasion of great ceremony:
On August 5th, 1896, the Feast of Our Lady of Snows, a beautiful statue representing the Blessed Virgin as she appeared to Bernadette at Lourdes was set in place in the new Grotto here at Notre Dame. The ceremony of the occasion, though short, partook of a simple grandeur that is not usually seen outside of Catholic countries. In the cool hours of the morning the Religious of the Holy Cross -- priests, brothers and nuns -- to the number of five hundred or more assembled in the spacious College Chapel to assist at Solemn Mass. All who were present approached the Holy Table and, when the services were over, formed in procession leading across the University lawn and through the picturesque grove in which Our Lady's shrine is situated. The brothers were in front carrying the statue and telling their beads, while the acolytes and priests followed with candles and waving banners. The sisters, chaunting the Litany of Loretto and the Magnificat, walked behind the ministers of the Mass. Those who have never witnessed a procession of this kind cannot know the beauty and the glory of it. Hard indeed would be the heart which would not thrill at the sight. To be sure, we do not refer to the mere specular aspect of a number of men and women marching in picturesque habits through a wooded glen, -- though that in itself is something uncommonly striking; we have in mind, rather, the faith of which is hardly any left in our day. No man could gaze on such a scene without feeling in his inmost consciousness -- whatever his outward expression might be -- that in the Catholic Church faith at least is not dead. And when on this occasion, the statue was finally in place and the religious knelt down before Our Lady's image offering prayers of thanksgiving and supplication, it was clear beyond doubt that here at Notre Dame there exists a faith in the Blessed Virgin's power, before God which is as strong and living as that which existed in the very "Ages of Faith" themselves. It is gratifying to be able to say this much, for it means that blessings are in store for the home of the new Grotto as well as the country round about from which the pilgrimages come.
A procession of 500 priests, brothers, and nuns would indeed have been an impressive sight on Notre Dame's modest campus in 1896. Since it's dedication, the Grotto has played an important role in the lives of Notre Dame residents and visitors alike. Dorothy Corson captures it so well that I won't try to paraphrase it:

An article in the Observer printed on February 13, 1986, five months after [a fire at the Grotto], brought renewed attention to this lovely campus shrine when the threat of loss was focused upon it.

In a portion of that impressive article, Kathy Martin the feature staff writer, speaks of the student experience:

Scarcely a student passes through the challenges, dilemmas, and triumphs of four college years here without taking refuge at one time or another in the peaceful silence of a moment of reflection before hundreds of glowing candles which are special prayers to the Virgin Mary. It is part of the Notre Dame experience and tradition. [...]

Kathy Martin also quotes former Notre Dame President, Father Theodore Hesburgh, who usually visits the Grotto every day when he is on campus:

"I really believe that Our Lady watches over this place. I feel I ought to stop in and say thanks, and also pray that she keeps watching over it." he said. "I usually get down there in the wee hours of the morning when I leave the office," he continued. "There is almost always someone down there, rain, sleet, or snow . . . . Every university has a place where students hang out for their social life, libraries where they study, and playing fields where they play sports, but how many have a praying place?"

The Grotto has earned Father Hesburgh's own personal accolade: "I've been to shrines dedicated to Our Lady all over the world. Mary may visit them, but she lives here at Notre Dame." [...]

This sanctuary among the trees is filled with the memories of a host of fellow travelers journeying through life. John Bruening's comment emphasizes this impression.

On a cold winter night, it's one of the few places you can go to be by yourself, yet never feel alone.

It has been said that the sweetest words in the English language are mother, heaven, and home -- Mary represents them all. The inspiration of her faith burns ever brightly in the candles at her Grotto, so that all people in need might come directly to her, like a child to its mother.

Father John E. Fitzgerald penned these words about that special feeling that radiates from the Grotto and touches the heart:

It's quiet and shady there. Just what there is about the place can't be described because it's different for everyone. Nobody knows how many candles have been burned or prayers answered there. From the great Golden Dome of her University Our Lady reigns as our Queen. Yet at the Grotto she seems to have stepped down a little closer to us that she might emphasize the other side of her personal relationship with us -- that of Our Mother.

The thoughts expressed above echo my own feelings about the Grotto. Haven't we all gone there in a moment of personal darkness and found comfort? Notre Dame, Our Mother.

Happy Mother's Day, from OC Domer.

1 comment:

TeamBrown said...

Thank you for this post. It actually brought a swell of tears to my eyes remembering my own tender moments at the grotto. What an amazing blessing was given to us to have such a place of respite available.